11 May 2016

The tale of two communities in crisis: Fort McMurray and Attawapiskat

Crisis situations are shaking two Canadian communities to their very core – the terrifying wildfires that destroyed Fort McMurray, and the epidemic of attempted youth suicides on the Attawapiskat First Nations reserve.

The question arises: Why are billions of dollars being pumped in to deal with one crisis while the other is all but being ignored.

By the time Fort McMurray is rebuilt, it’s likely that governments will have spent $2-billion or more.   Donations from Canadians will reach into the millions. And a representative of one of the big insurance companies estimated they will be required to pay as much as $9-billion to restore homes and businesses.  

Justin Trudeau receives a gift of sweetgrass and a canoe
from  National Chief Perry Bellegarde after addressing
 the Assembly of First Nations. 
I have no quarrel with anything that is being done to help the people and community of Fort McMurray.  The destruction and emotional distress suffered by residents is taking a heavy toll. Like thousands of other folks, I have made a financial contribution.

What I do object to is that, in comparison, the federal and Ontario governments are doing practically nothing and spending a pittance to alleviate the suicide crisis in Attawapiskat, a poverty-stricken, isolated community of 2,000 located 720 km north of Sudbury.

The youth crisis reached epidemic proportions just days before the fire outbreak in Fort McMurray. Eleven Attawapiskat young people attempted suicide during the same night. Local hospital staff, unable to deal with the situation, became frantic.

Following an urgent appeal for help, the federal and Ontario government sent a handful of medical specialists to comfort the young people.

The support didn’t help much.

Last week, on the second day of the fires in Fort McMurray, Attawapiskat experienced nine suicide or overdoses attempts.

Chief Bruce Shisheesh of Attawapiskat urgently contacted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and asked for a second meeting.  He told Trudeau it was now "a matter of life and death" in his community.
"While the efforts of your ministers is appreciated to date, it falls short [of] finding  Attawapiskat has been under a state of emergency since early April, with chief and council saying it has been overwhelmed by ongoing suicide attempts.”
The Prime Minister’s Office replied that Prime Minister Trudeau could meet with native leaders in Ottawa when it was convenient to both parties.

Earlier, Trudeau charmed native leaders and reserve folks with vague promises and double-talk:
“I don’t want to pretend that any of us have the answers to the challenges facing indigenous peoples in Canada, but what I will tell you that as a country, we can build those answers.”
Clearly, compared to the human touch extended to the victims of Fort McMurray, governments are being callous in their responses to the Attawapiskat crisis.

Where is the empathy
in those kinds of promises?

A lack of money is not the problem. The federal government is sitting on about $4-billion to be used to improve lives, particularly education facilities, on reserves. http://communica.ca/summary-the-2016-federal-budget-and-aboriginal-programs/

What is hard to understand is why the federal government isn’t dipping into its stashed away billions to assist First Nations communities such as Attawapiskat.

If respect for human life is a factor, surely the greatest threat is at Attawapiskat. In Fort McMurray, luckily, only two people lost their lives, due to a vehicle accident. In Attawapiskat a 13-year-old girl committed suicide last October.  Since last fall, others have died and there have been more than 100 suicide attempts in the community.

Children – kids who should be growing up bright and enthusiastic – are trying to kill themselves.

The federal government could use one of those giant aircraft being used at Fort McMurray to airlift gifts to the depressed children into Attawapiskat. It would be great if they were given all kinds of things they’d love to have – from computers, to new bicycles, to dolls, etc.

Instead of loaning psychiatrists and medical support to the sad little hospital on the reserve, staff levels should be doubled or tripled until well after the suicide crisis is over.

Much of the housing on the reserve is uninhabitable and contributes to suicidal feelings and other problems.  The same military planes that were used to help Fort McMurray should be deployed to air-lift new pre-fabricated houses and community buildings to Attawapiskat.

I contend that the decades of poverty, the murder of more than1,000 women, the many youth suicides, and the general degradation of a race of people deserve equal attention to the aid and love being bestowed on Fort McMurray.

So, why is one crisis receiving massive support, while another, perhaps more serious in some ways, is getting little attention?

Governments and the public reacted so positively and so quickly to the Fort McMurray situation because the fire was so immediate and horrific. Now millions will be spent to allow the energy companies to get back to scraping up oil sands.

While I don’t have a lot of faith in Liberal governments, I am surprised that, given the strong stand Trudeau has taken concerning aboriginal issues, he hasn’t taken more action more quickly.

On the other hand, the problems on reserves such as Attawapiskat have been with us for generations. While there have been improvements in the attitudes of many Canadians toward indigenous people, many others still don’t think they should be helped.

If there were overwhelming pressure on the government to help Attawapiskat, it would be happening. Of course if a non-aboriginal community were threatened by dozens of children trying to commit suicide, government and public response would be overwhelming.

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  1. Good stuff! A buddy pointed me to this article as it was published in National Observer, and asked me to blog about it. I followed the link here and will have to do more reading.

  2. This is a great piece and I'm glad you wrote it.

    Why have you not included any economic argument, in that Fort McMurray has been the epicentre of Canadian economic development for decades, or that tens of thousands of Canadians from Coast to Coast have lived and worked there. There is also the argument of necessary investment towards rebuilding a hub for provincial and national economic security.

    Attawapiskat, while filled with people who have every right towards better standards of living and hope for their future, will probably not be the epicentre of a near-term national revenue engine.

    You have also not brought up why Aboriginal controlled wealth funds, which number plenty, have not pushed to invest in the infrastructure of communities such as Attawapiskat. Any community requires investment capital from outside sources... public works investment is the bread and butter of pension funds and could be highly successful for Aboriginal-controlled wealth funds.

    I would love to see you follow up with this comparative between these two communities and go deeper than the argument of "Canadians care about white people more than Aboriginal peoples".

    1. Yes, I could have written about these elements -- perhaps if I was doing a longer magazine piece. But I think I already was at more than 800 words, very long for news websites. It'a big topic for another day.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. I was disappointed that there was no direction how to donate to help those from the invisible crisis.

    Any organization working in Attawapiskat to stem the crisis? Is the Red Cross taking donations, as they did in 2011?

    However disappointed I am about the lack, I am ecstatic that you have written about this. And that it is being shared. I have seen it shared from both the National Observer and Huffington Post.

    1. Sorry, I don't know if anyone is really taking money for Attawapiskat. I was surprised they donated $5,000 to the folks of Fort McMurray.

  5. DAREarts a children's education program is taking donations through Marilyn Field. My wife and I both do work for DAREarts and my wife has been to Attawapiskat as a teacher

  6. Although I don't disagree with your article, I think you are ignoring the real reason. Fort Mac is ruled by big oil who has deep pockets and influence in government.
    Attawapiskat has a large diamond mine that contributes nothing back to the community.