Canadian Politicians Debate Until Midnight the ‘Staggering’ Indigenous Suicide Crisis

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Canada's members of parliament spent nearly six hours in an emergency debate on Tuesday evening discussing how to address rampant suicide attempts in communities like Attawapiskat, after 11 cases in a single night propelled the tiny Aboriginal reserve into the public consciousness.

The debate was requested by NDP MP Charlie Angus, whose riding includes Attawapiskat, and granted by House Speaker Geoff Regan in light of "the gravity of the situation."

"The greatest tragedy in this nation is that we would waste a generation of children," said Angus in his opening remarks. "What squander of potential."

"Tonight might be the beginning of a change in our country," said the politician, calling for an end to the "band-aids," "the emergency flights in and the hand wringing," and the "culture of deniability" in Ottawa.

He choked up while reading messages from First Nations youth, who expressed a desire to build a relationship with the federal government, and pushed the government to take them up on their offer.

Throughout the debate, Angus brought up the importance of providing long-term supports to frontline workers, asking community members what they need instead of imposing solutions, and allocating more funds to mental health services on reserves — something he and many Aboriginal leaders have noticed was missing from the Liberal government's budget.

Related: More Than 100 Attempts, One Death: The Face of a Tiny Canadian Community's Suicide Crisis

There have been over 100 suicide attempts in Attawapiskat since September, including many by youth — some just elementary school-aged children. On Monday, as support workers were being deployed into the community by the federal and provincial governments, news broke that a group of children had been taken to hospital for assessment after they were overheard making a suicide pact.

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was absent from the debate, several of his cabinet ministers delivered impassioned speeches on the situation, citing commitments made by their government to address Indigenous issues, including $8.4 billion in the latest budget to improve education, as well as health and social services on reserves.

Health Minister Jane Philpott noted suicide rates among Aboriginal people are significantly higher than non-Aboriginal Canadians. While young First Nations males in Canada are 10 times more likely to die by suicide than others, the rate for females are 21 times higher, with an even higher rate among the Inuit population.

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

Philpott, a family physician, said a decade of living and working in Niger opened her eyes up to the social determinants of health. The realization that doctors and nurses could only do so much to improve a population's overall health was what ultimately made her enter politics, she said.

"We have a responsibility to close these inequalities, to directly influence the social determinants of health that are at work in these communities," she continued.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett listed a series of factors that were contributing to harsh living conditions on reserves, including racism and colonization.

"Children need to know they are valued," she said, adding that "suicide is not a consequence of individual vulnerability."

'It is not easy to remove the shackles of 140 years of life under the Indian Act.'

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould spoke about her own Indigenous background, before launching into a speech on the Liberal government's vision for the work that lay ahead: getting rid of the Indian Act, which still gives control over many of Canada's First Nations to the federal government, and "breath[ing] life" into Section 35 of Canada's constitution, which recognizes and affirms Aboriginal rights.

"It is not easy to remove the shackles of 140 years of life under the Indian Act. Our government, and I hope all members of this honorable house, is committed to ensuring, in partnership with Indigenous peoples, to do just that," she said.

"In addition to the need for social and economic support, urgently needed in Attawapiskat and all First Nations, all Indigenous peoples need to be empowered to take back control of their own lives," she continued.

Conservative Aboriginal affairs critic Cathy McLeod, one of the few Conservative MPs to attend or speak at the debate, however, remarked on what "terrible disservice to band members" it is to retreat from the First Nation Transparency Act, a piece of legislation passed by the previous government, which forced band councils to make their finances public.

Since coming to power, the Liberals reinstated frozen funds under the act and suspended court actions against First Nations that refused to comply.

McLeod said it was "critical" to "shine the light for communities to actually look at their leadership and what their leadership is doing."

The debate wrapped up around midnight. Aboriginal leaders are expected to address the indigenous affairs committee on Thursday.

On Monday, a Facebook group dedicated to Attawapiskat posted images of what young people said they need.

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Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk