Inside the Occupation by Indigenous Peoples That Has Spread Across Canada

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Rusty Garrioch hails from Cross Lake, Manitoba, where a rash of suicides gripped the northern Indigenous community this year, and forced Pimicikamak — the Cree government — to declare a state of emergency.

Upon hearing that an occupation was underway of federal buildings across Canada that house the ministry of Indigenous and Northern Affairs (INAC), he set out on an eight-hour journey to join the contingent in the province's capital of Winnipeg.

Standing among protesters this week, holding a feather, he spoke in clear, at turns indignant, tones.

"I put away five youths," said Garrioch, a young man himself and the youth council chief for Pimicikamak. He paused, appearing for a moment lost in thought. "And it was something. It was hard to see."

It's a suicide crisis on another Aboriginal reserve that drew protesters, leaders, and mothers with young children in tow, to INAC offices across the country this month, to stage perhaps the most high profile political action by the Indigenous community in recent years.

Inside the occupation of Winnipeg's Indigenous and Northern Affairs office. (Photo by Martha Troian)

Inside the occupation of Winnipeg's Indigenous and Northern Affairs office. (Photo by Martha Troian)

Attawapiskat, a tiny reserve in remote northern Ontario, drew the country's eyes to a crisis that has been ravaging the Aboriginal population for years in Canada. Eleven people — ten of them youths — tried to commit suicide on the remote Cree reserve in one night this month. More than 100 have made the attempt since September.

"That's all that I've been seeing, kids taking their own life, right across northern communities," Garrioch said in remarks inside INAC's Winnipeg office that were captured on camera.

"They're crying out for help," added Raquel Lavalle, 28, a mother of three, with ties to Aboriginal territories in Ontario and Manitoba known as Sachigo Lake, and Pine Creek.

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

Some have compared #OccupyINAC to the Idle No More movement that swept Canada in 2012 and saw hundreds of people take part in "flash mob round dances," , and other demonstrations in protest of poor living conditions, and legislation proposed by the previous Conservative government that they said basic treaty rights.

The scale of the current occupation has been smaller, but the conviction remains: while protesters in Toronto, where the occupation started on April 13, announced on Thursday they were bringing it to a close, the sit-ins in Winnipeg and Vancouver remain.

Protesters had been blocked from the INAC office in Regina by a fence, which this week. There were also ongoing demonstrators outside INAC headquarters in Gatineau.

"I think Idle No More was the one that kicked everyone's ass into motion," says Geraldine, 50, one of the people occupying the Winnipeg office. She believes that it was only a matter of time before protests similar to Idle No More happened again.

"You only can oppress people for so long before people decide that they don't want to be oppressed anymore."

Recently, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett visited Attawapiskat with NDP MP Charlie Angus.

"No community in Canada should ever be faced with the circumstances that led so many of their young people to lose hope," read a statement issued by Bennett and Angus after the trip. "Unfortunately, we know that these stories are not isolated to Attawapiskat but are common among all too many Indigenous communities across this country."

Talks will begin with Attawapiskat to ease a chronic housing shortage, the statement says. They also pledged to bring a delegation of Indigenous youth from northern Ontario to Ottawa to meet with government officials and discuss issues in their communities.

But that doesn't go far enough for the protesters occupying the Winnipeg office.

The group made an official statement asking all governments, including First Nations Chiefs and Councils to honor "ancient treaties". The group is demanding the abolition of the reserve system and the Indian Act — which is the Canadian government's primary legislation for First Nations. Perhaps most surprisingly, the group is also calling for the end of the "numbered treaties," which were signed between the Crown and First Nations from 1871 to 1921, and gave the government access to huge swaths of land and for existing and future assimilation policies.

According to the group, they will continue to occupy the space "until the Crown, so-called Government of Canada, and so-called Chief and Council, acknowledge" their statement and demands.

"I think [the protest is] happening in an appropriate place, because this is where the destruction of our people's lives comes from, policies made in a federal system," says Rita Moonias, 63, who came to show her support to the Winnipeg protest. Moonias is originally from Pimicikamak, a northern Manitoba Cree community which has been engaged in a decades long battle with Manitoba Hydro over a power generating station in their territory. In March, it declared a state of emergency after 140 students and young adults admitted to seriously considering taking their own lives in the past three months.

Rita Moonias inside Winnipeg occupation. (Photo by Martha Troian)

Rita Moonias inside Winnipeg occupation. (Photo by Martha Troian)

Recently, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs — which represents half of the over 200 First Nations in that province — released a statement in support of the protesters at OccupyINAC in Vancouver, telling them to "keep resisting and keep telling the truth."

In a statement to VICE News, the federal department also directly addressed the demonstrations.

"We recognize the importance of the grassroots voices that are speaking up. We want to assure all Canadians we remain focused on the work that needs to continue in support of the community. The voices of the people of Attawapiskat are being heard," the statement reads.

The department also states that the possibility of reopening offices is being assessed "on a day-to-day basis."

And while protesters have yet to say how long they'll continue or whether the #OccupyINAC movement will spread further, according to Lavallee "this is just the beginning, we will no longer accept acts of treason."

Follow Martha Troian on Twitter: @ozhibiiige