Attawapiskat suicide crisis: MPs hold emergency debate over suicide attempts

The House of Commons held an emergency debate over "the gravity" of the many suicide attempts on the First Nation reserve of Attawapiskat, with the session wrapping just before midnight on Tuesday.

Commons Speaker acknowledges 'gravity' of crisis in northern Ontario community

Philpott: Attawapiskat situation is unacceptable

7 years ago
Duration 1:48
Health Minister Jane Philpott reacts to the situation facing reserves such as the current crisis in Attiwapiskat.

NDP MP Charlie Angus opened the emergency debate on the Attawapiskat suicide crisis by calling for a groundswell of political will that will put an end to Band-Aid solutions for the problems facing Canada's First Nations.

"This isn't just particularly about Attawapiskat, it's about who we are as Canadians and our whole nation," Angus told the Commons. "The greatest tragedy is the image of these helpless communities, and these lost children," he said.

"Tonight might be the beginning of a change in our country, and that is what I am asking us to come together to do," Angus added.

Minister of Health Dr. Jane Philpott began by thanking Angus for asking for the House of Commons to hold the debate and for taking such a central role to bring "help and hope to these communities."

"When I think that there are communities in our country where … young people in groups are deciding that there is no hope for their future, we must do better, we have to find a way to go forward," said Philpott.

"Tonight has to be a turning point for us as a country in order for us to decide together that we will do better," she said.

A community in crisis

The request for an emergency debate comes as Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh fears more young people will try to harm themselves while the community tries to grapple with the crisis after declaring a state of emergency Saturday, following reports of 11 suicide attempts in one day. There are also reports of over 100 suicide attempts and at least one death since September.

Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh fears more young people will try to harm themselves as the northern Ontario community tries to grapple with a large increase in teen suicide attempts that prompted him to call a state of emergency over the weekend. (CBC)

Officials from Health Canada said on Tuesday afternoon that 18 health workers, mental-health workers and police were being dispatched to support the Attawapiskat community.

That includes a medical emergency assistance team and the five additional mental health workers deployed a day earlier. Four mental health workers already in the community were to be sent out for rest and a debriefing, the departmental spokesperson said.

"We'll have to look at what the intermediate or longer term needs are," said the Health Canada official in a phone briefing with journalists on Tuesday.

The emergency debate was approved by House Speaker Geoff Regan Tuesday morning on a request from Angus, whose riding includes Attawapiskat.

"The crisis in Attawapiskat has gathered world attention and people are looking to this Parliament to explain the lack of hope, that's not just in Attawapiskat but in so many indigenous communities. And they're looking to us, in this new Parliament, to offer change," Angus said in the House of Commons on Tuesday morning.

The session wrapped up just before midnight.

Angus said the emergency debate would allow MPs to address "the lack of mental health services, police services, community supports" facing so many First Nations communities across the country.

"In closing," Angus said, "the prime minister called the situation in Attawapiskat 'heartbreaking' but it is up to us as parliamentarians to turn this into a moment of hope-making."

"That's why I'm asking my colleagues to work with me tonight, to work together, to discuss this issue tonight and start to lay a path forward to give the hope to the children of our northern and all other indigenous communities," Angus said in the Commons earlier Tuesday.

Regan acknowledged "the gravity of this situation" before granting Angus's request.

Trudeau reacts to crisis in Attiwapiskat

7 years ago
Duration 0:49
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reacts to the situation in Attiwapiskat as well as reports on pipelines as he heads into the House of Commons for Question period.

'Unacceptable' conditions: Philpott

The health minister said the conditions facing indigenous communities are "absolutely unacceptable."

"We are currently investing over $300 million per year into mental wellness programs in these communities," Philpott said during question period on Tuesday.

Perry Bellegarde, the national chief for the Assembly of First Nations, will be traveling to Attawapiskat on Wednesday where he is expected to meet with Chief Shisheesh.

Ontario's Minister of Health and Long-Term Care Eric Hoskins is also expected to visit the northern community saying in a post on Twitter he looked forward to meeting Bellegarde and the Attawapiskat chief.

Other Ontario First Nations communities declared public health emergencies earlier this year.

At least four aboriginal leaders have been scheduled to appear before the Commons indigenous affairs committee on Thursday to discuss the health crises facing their communities.