First Nation leaders call for action from Justin Trudeau on Attawapiskat suicide crisis

First Nation leaders are applauding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's decision to arrange a meeting with the chief of Attawapiskat.

'It's going to get worse until we get support programs in place for both parents and children'

Former Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence says community-based services are needed to prevent suicide attempts. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

First Nation leaders are applauding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's decision to arrange a meeting with the chief of Attawapiskat — but they said they will not be satisfied until the federal government comes up with long term solutions to the suicide crisis facing the remote James Bay community.

"It's our hope that they [Trudeau and Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh] agree on finding some solutions for the immediate crisis, begin to develop some longer term solutions and address the longstanding issues that have been plaguing the community for a long time now," the Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Alvin Fiddler, said.

Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day says Attawapiskat needs partnerships and investments from the federal government. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)
"I'm glad that he has been able to find the time and make Attawapiskat a priority," Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day said.

"What they [Attawapiskat] really need are partnerships and investments," he said, adding that the community requires improved housing and infrastructure. 

Chief Bruce Shisheesh has been pressing for an urgent meeting with Trudeau to discuss the increase in the number of suicide attempts among young people in Attawapiskat. 

Shisheesh said while emergency response efforts are appreciated, they fall short of a long term solution.

Trudeau sent Shisheesh a letter on Thursday agreeing to meet in Ottawa at some point in the near future. 

Fiddler said the one-on-one meeting between Trudeau and Shisheesh is important for re-establishing trust between the community and the federal government. 
Alvin Fiddler, Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, says Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh's upcoming meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offers a chance to rebuild and repair their relationship. (Alvin Fiddler)

"We need to rebuild and repair that relationship knowing that under the previous regime that relationship was severely damaged," he said.

Crisis 'could've been prevented'

Former chief Theresa Spence tried to draw attention to First Nation concerns in 2012 by staging a six week hunger strike, but she said she had trouble getting the federal government's attention at that time. 

"From my experience with the government, it was a nightmare because it was a dirty game from the federal [government] at that time, and I'm happy to see this government not doing that process," Spence said.

"To me, I feel that he [Trudeau] is hearing our children and youth crying for help," she said. "He did send his ministers to assist Attawapiskat immediately. There was no delay. So that's a relief for the leadership and even for the community members and the youth. So it's a positive step."

Spence said she no longer resides in the community, but she said it hurts to hear about the crisis back home. 

"It's going to get worse until we get support programs in place for both parents and children," she said. "It has to be community-based. If we had these services, I think this could've been prevented."​

Spence met with Trudeau for one hour during her hunger strike while he was running for the federal Liberal leadership. She said he showed compassion. 

Healthy skepticism about meeting 

But Brock Pitawanakwat, professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Sudbury, said there is healthy skepticism among Indigenous people about whether Trudeau's meeting with Shisheesh will be anything more than just symbolic. 

"It needs to lead to real action and solving problems," he said.

"The one hope I would have is that he [Trudeau] follows through on the invitation from the youth of Attawapiskat that the prime minister should himself pay a visit to the community."