Environmental Justice in Canada
Attawapiskat First Nation Declare State of Emergency
By Mari Galloway, 2016-05-03
The Northern Ontario Attawapiskat First Nation declared a state of emergency on April 9, 2016 after 11 residents attempted suicide on the same day. The community of about 2,000 people has had more than 100 attempted suicides since September of last year, 28 of which occurred in March 2016 alone.
"I'm asking friends, government, that we need help in our community," said Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Bruce Shissheesh according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). "I have relatives that have attempted to take their own lives... cousins, friends."
The following Monday, police detained thirteen youth after learning about a suicide pact that they had entered into with each other, according to Anna Betty Achneepineskum a member the Nishnawbe Aski Nation which represents First Nations in Northern Ontario.
In response to the catastrophe, the provincial and federal governments sent a crisis response unit including health-care and social workers to the Attawpiskat community and legislators to support the community.
“Hearing about the loss of life to suicide and the feelings of despair felt by the community of Attawapiskat reminds us of how important it is to work with First Nations and indigenous peoples across the country to address the very real challenges facing their communities," said Canadian Health Minister Jane Philpott, in a statement released on April 11.
However in many ways, the Canadian government's response remains inadequate. The policies have been largely reactive and s with the root causes of crises in First Nations communities such as the suicide epidemic occurring in Attapiskat and fail to provide long-lasting solutions.
"The reason we are in states of emergency is because proactive work is not done with the supporting agencies that could be there to help," Sol Mamakwa, a Nishnawbe Aski Nation health adviser told the Toronto Star. "We get the band-aid and the officials leave and the crisis continues on a low boil until it blows up again."
This is the fifth state of emergency that Attawpiskat has declared since 2006 for reasons including flooding, poor drinking water as well as a severe housing crisis. The state of emergency is a tool open to First Nations communities and Canadian municipalities, which is meant to trigger immediate help from the provincial and federal governments to resolve the crisis or catastrophe at hand as quickly as possible. However, recently The Toronto Star reported that states of emergency on First Nations' reserves often remain unresolved for years. The longest running state of emergency was declared by the Mushkegowuk Tribal Council in James Bay on June 1, 2010.
The crisis in Attapiskat is not an isolated incident and speaks to the need to address the higher rates of suicide across First Nations communities in Canada and their root causes. According to the Centre for Suicide Prevention, suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading cause of death for First Nations Youth. They are five or six times more likely to commit suicide or inflict self-harm than non-indigenous youth in Canada.
There is no single cause for the crisis but according to Chief Shissheesh triggers such as overcrowding and inadequate housing in the community, bullying, drug abuse as well as the intergenerational trauma stemming from residential schools are all triggers.
Image: © PHOTOPOLITAIN