By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
Justice Minster Jody Wilson-Raybould said Tuesday the Trudeau Liberal government aims to “complete the unfinished business of Confederation” and replace the Indian Act with a “reconciliation framework” that would outlast the life of this administration.
Wilson-Raybould didn’t lead the government side in an emergency debate held late into the night which was triggered by a suicide crisis gripping the small fly-in community of Attawapiskat in Ontario’s James Bay region. Yet, her speech was the only one that revealed the extent of the historical vision the Trudeau government has when it comes to reshaping the relationship between the state and the original inhabitants on this land.
The Liberals aim to do nothing less than scrap the Indian Act. In its place the government wants to create a new relationship based on section 35 of the Constitution, which guarantees Aboriginal rights, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), according to Wilson-Raybould.
“We need to ensure we breathe life into section 35 and that we complete the unfinished business of Confederation,” said Wilson-Raybould. “If we do so we will have a strong and appropriate governance in First Nation communities wherein they have moved beyond the Indian Act.”
For about five-and-a-half hours on Tuesday evening, the House of Commons, the centre of political life in Canada, turned its full attention to the dark and painful suicide epidemic that seems to cycle through northern First Nation communities.
The latest is Attawapiskat which declared a state of emergency Saturday after recording 11 suicide attempts in a 24-hour period.
NDP MP Charlie Angus, whose riding includes Attawapiskat, called for the debate to not only discuss the Cree community, but also similar tragedies that have hit other First Nation communities: Pimicikamak Cree Nation which declared a state of emergency last month after suffering six suicides and 140 attempts in the span of two months and La Loche, Sask., a Dene community that suffered a school shooting that left four dead in January.
Wilson-Rayboud, a former regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, who is now the country’s top lawyer, wove her own life experience and political track record in a speech that traced the roots of the suicide crisis to the 140-year-old Indian Act. Her speech laid out the thinking behind much of the symbolism and language the Trudeau government has employed whenever it communicates about the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian state.
“I am proud to be an Indigenous person and stand up in this honourable house and speak to this important issue,” she said. “Indigenous peoples in this country are at an important junction in our history as they seek to deconstruct their colonial legacy and rebuild their communities….Only the colonized can decolonize themselves and change is not easy.”
Wilson-Raybould then attacked the Indian Act.
“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 honourable house, is committed to ensuring, in partnership with Indigenous peoples, to do just that,” she said. “For Attawapiskat and for all First Nations, the Indian Act is not a suitable system of government, it is not consistent with the rights enshrined in our constitution, the principles as set out in (UNDRIP) or calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. 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.”
Then, Wilson-Raybould described the scale of the project as nothing short of historical in a portion of her speech addressed directly to Indigenous peoples.
“Indigenous peoples, the challenge is not easy, it is complex, indeed for far too long it has been ignored as a task as too difficult and monumental, but we can and must do better. This work is non-partisan, it is broader than the department of Justice and did not just fall to the department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs,” she said. “The nation-to-nation relationship is one of the most challenging public policy issues of our time and I challenge all members of this House to work with us in building this relationship. There are no quick fixes to these issues, a substantive nation-to-nation discussion with Indigenous peoples is needed. We need to sit down and work jointly to ensure Indigenous communities are strong and healthy and in charge and in control of their own destiny.”
There were about 20 NDP MPs, from a caucus of 44, in the chamber during the debate at various points, and about 50 Liberal MPs from a caucus of 184. The Conservatives had the lowest number attend, with about five scattered throughout their party’s 98-seat section in the House of Commons. Their numbers jumped to 11 when their Aboriginal affairs critic Cathy McLeod stood up for her turn in the debate and most sat around her for the benefit of the House of Commons camera.
When the debate began, MPs from all sides said they wanted Tuesday night to be a turning point, the debate to finally end the debates about another crisis crippling another First Nation.
Angus compared the current suicide crisis as Canada’s “Alan Kurdi” moment, referring to the image of the body of the three-year-old Syrian refugee child who drowned in September after a failed attempt to reach Europe.
“It shocked the world,” said Angus, who triggered the emergency debate. “This is our moment….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’ voice, with emotion seeping in at the edges, read out messages from First Nation youths he recently received, including the words of Abigail Mattinas, from Constance Lake First Nation, who said she wanted to bring “light in a dark time.”
NDP MP Georgina Jolibois spoke after Angus and said suicide attempts were starting to rise in La Loche, which sits in her riding, as a result of the January shooting. Jolibois said youth were not getting the help they needed. She said many youth were showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the shooting.
“But they have no one to turn to and nowhere to go,” she said. “The families are left alone on their own to mend for themselves and take care of their problems…Young people, children and their families when they are feeling the effects of PTSD they need to go to the health centre or the band office or clinic and say I need to speak to someone because I am feeling stressed and overwhelmed. They walk in and there is no one to talk to them.”
Health Minister Jane Philpott said during the debate that she believed those supports should still be there in La Loche, but would discuss the issue with Jolibois. She said the Liberal government would this year be investing $300 million in mental health and wellness in Indigenous communities
Philpott began her Commons speech with the data: First Nation male youth suicide rates are 10 times higher than male non-Indigenous youth; First Nation female youth suicide rates are 21 times than their non-Indigenous counterparts; Inuit male youth rates are 35 times higher than their Canadian counterparts.
“It is a staggering reality, it is completely unacceptable,” she said. “When I think there are communities in our country where young people as young as my young 15-year-old daughter and even younger than that, when there are young people in groups are decided that there is no hope their future, we must do better…tonight has to be a turning point for us as a country.”
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, who was praised for her passion by MPs during the debate, became emotional as she recounted her last trip to Attawapiskat when she was an in opposition and the community was in the midst of a housing crisis.
“I was thinking of my trip to Attawapiskat in one of those terrible homes and seeing this 10-month-old baby on the bed and just thinking that that baby can’t pay for whatever else is going on around, that baby deserves a chance,” said Bennett.
Bennett, who at one point referred to herself as the “minister of reconciliation,” said “these communities need hope” and the children need to know “they are valued and have value.” Bennett said she was hoping by the end of the debate that all Canadians would lift these communities up.
“Suicide is not a consequence of individual vulnerability,” she said. “It is about the causes of the causes.”
She then listed many of the causes of the causes, including racism, Indian residential schools, colonialization, child abuse, over-crowded houses, lack of health services, lack of clean water and healthy food.
“There is no single answer to addressing this,” said Bennett.
In her speech, Bennett also discussed the child welfare system, “where we have more children in care than at the height of residential schools.” She also raised the issue of child abuse.
“We have to talk out loud about that now,” said Bennett, referring to an Anglican priest who abused 500 children in Ontario’s James Bay region.
“This is 20 years of abuse in that region,” she said. “This is not difficult to understand, to make the links.”
The Conservatives took a different tack. While for a moment it seemed that the party’s Aboriginal affairs critic Cathy McLeod would continue to focus on the suicide crisis facing First Nations by recounting her first week on the job as a nurse in a First Nation community facing three suicides, she eventually shifted gears.
“Moving back from the First Nation Transparency Act is a terrible disservice to band members,” said MacLeod.
The Transparency Act was passed by the Stephen Harper government which forced band councils to publicly release their financial information. While the Act has not been repealed, the Liberal government has pulled back from court action to force non-complying First Nations to release the information.
The issue was raised repeatedly by Conservative MPs during the debate.
“To me this is a critical one step,” said McLeod. “We shine the light for communities to actually look at their leadership and what their leadership is doing.”
MacLeod also said her party remained unapologetic about refusing, while in government, to move forward with $1.9 billion in education investment after First Nation chiefs refused to support accompanying legislation.
“There should be some equal work done, not only is there money, but we are going to create a structure that is going achieve results we want to achieve,” she said, responding to a question from Edmonton NDP MP Linda Duncan.
However, long-time Nova Scotia MP Bill Casey, who left the Conservatives and ran under the Liberal banner in the last election, summed up the sentiment of many MPs present in the House of Commons throughout the evening.
“I was elected 28 years ago for the first time,” said Nova Scotia Liberal MP Bill Casey. “One of the first debates we had was this debate we are having tonight about the plight of Aboriginals….Are we ready to help? Are we ready to do something? Every single one of us, so we don’t do this in another 28 years, so we don’t do this debate in another eight years. That is the question for all of us.”
The debate was expected to wrap up at midnight.