Thunder Bay

Emotional plea for Indigenous mental health workers at Trudeau's town hall in Thunder Bay

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau heard an emotional plea for mental health supports in Indigenous communities during his town hall meeting Friday evening in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Justin Trudeau visited the northwestern Ontario city Friday

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Thunder Bay on Friday for a town hall meeting at Lakehead University. (Matt Prokopchuk / CBC)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau heard an emotional plea for mental health supports in Indigenous communities during his town hall meeting Friday evening in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Approximately 850 to 900 people attended the event at Lakehead University's gymnasium with questions ranging from the SNC-Lavalin affair to his government's environmental record.

But the call for Ottawa to do more to secure mental health workers in First Nations came from a 26-year-old woman who left her community of Sandy Lake, about 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, to study in the city.

"What do you plan on doing for the mental health of Indigenous people in the north?" Forrest Sawanas asked Trudeau while fighting back tears, highlighting several "horrific things," alleging sexual assault and physical violence in her community.

"If there are teachers who are willing to live in the north for the academic year, there shouldn't be an issue with providing mental health workers in the north," she said.
26-year-old Forrest Sawanas from Sandy Lake First Nation highlighted several "horrific things" that have happened in her community. She asked Justin Trudeau what his plans were for providing mental health support for Indigenous people in the north. (Matt Prokopchuk / CBC)

The supports are needed to help people cope with the intergenerational trauma of residential schools, she said.

Trudeau started his answer by first thanking Sawanas for "her courage and her strength," and then told the public that, "I think Canadians need to hear that."

"[The] kinds of things that if they happened, even in a big city like Toronto or Vancouver would be screaming headlines for weeks and that are collectively still met far too often with shrugs because it happened in 'those' communities," he continued.

"That's unacceptable."

"We are not the country that we like to think of ourselves as," Trudeau added.

While not addressing whether more mental health workers would be on their way to First Nations, Trudeau said the federal government still has more to do to invest in Indigenous communities, including in areas like housing, education as well as mental health.

"We have an awful lot to do," he said.

Trudeau faced a receptive crowd in Thunder Bay — both of the city's ridings are held by Liberal MPs — but was challenged, not only on support for Indigenous communities, but also on climate change, the environment and infrastructure.

The Prime Minister largely used the questions to defend his government's record and highlight its accomplishments, while acknowledging Ottawa still has more work to do.

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