The long wait for change in Attawapiskat: Still no youth centre, permanent mental-health workers

OTTAWA — More than six months after a suicide crisis drew the world’s to Attawapiskat, there is still no promised youth centre or permanent -health workers.

As winter begins to set in at the remote Cree community near James Bay, so does disillusionment among some young people who vowed to help bring to their beleaguered community, but are still waiting for government promises to be fulfilled.

“Absolutely nothing has been done,” said a clearly frustrated high school Mandy Alves last week about the highly anticipated youth centre. “A lot of the young people are feeling disenfranchised because they had such hope.”

Chelsea Edwards, a young activist who helped push for a new elementary school, said the community needs a youth centre.

“Every community needs a place where youth can go, and we don’t have that.”

In April, media and officials from both the Ontario and federal governments converged on Attawapiskat after multiple suicide attempts and suicide pacts, by children as young as 11, led the community to declare a state of emergency and ask for help. For Attawapiskat youth, this crisis was a push to work for change.

A group of young people formed a committee aimed at finding solutions to the suicide crisis and social issues among youth. They met with government officials and wrote a list of ways to engage young people. Near the top of the list was a youth centre.

When Carolyn Bennett, federal minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, arrived in Attawapiskat in the midst of the attempted suicide epidemic, the youth centre was near the top of her list, too.

“They have asked for a youth centre where they can come together and work with families, elders for cultural and wellness programming,” Bennett said at the time. “Starting immediately, we will begin to work with the community and provincial partners to plan and design such a space, as well as put in place the ‘on the land programming’ that they had requested.”

That was in April. The suicide crisis in Attawapiskat has settled down since then, according to Chief Ignace Gull, who, along with a new council, was elected in August. But, with crises continuing in other First Nations — notably northern Saskatchewan, where six young girls have taken their lives — Gull is cautious.

“There is great hope that we don’t see any more, but there is also the expectation that . Hopefully, we can keep things under control.”

Gull said it will take at least five years to design and build a new youth centre — something that will involve the entire community. In the meantime, he said, a temporary centre will be retrofitted.

A project manager from Indigenous Affairs has inspected the community’s former band council offices, which are expected to be turned in to a , Gull said.

Nathan Denette/Canadian Press
Nathan Denette/Canadian PressMinister of Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett, right, shows her support for Stephanie Hookimaw, left, who lost her daughter to suicide in Attawapiskat, Ont., in an April photo.

They were abandoned by the council because of concerns about mould and a leaky roof, among other things. Several youth from the community say there is no sign of anything being done to turn the abandoned building into a temporary youth centre.

Gull said work is slow, but progressing. But youth are becoming frustrated with the lack of information and action.

Jean Levac/Postmedia News
Jean Levac/Postmedia News'Absolutely nothing has been done,' teacher Mandy Alves says.

“There were a lot of promises made, and it comes down to the same thing that has been happening,” said Alves, who grew up in Ottawa and has taught in Attawapiskat for several years. “It is really sad at the moment.”

Attawapiskat had earlier gained worldwide attention over a fight for a safe, school instead of the freezing, mouldy trailers being used as classrooms. Edwards, who fought for that school after her friend and school advocate Shannen Koostachin died in a car accident, recalls that many promises were made before the school was finally built 14 years later.

“People are questioning when it is going to be built,” Edwards said of the youth centre. “We have no idea. Nobody is telling us anything.”

, health officials say permanent mental-health workers are still not in place in Attawapiskat because there is no place for them to live.

But one nurse and one crisis worker are on temporary rotations in Attawapiskat, deployed from Sudbury, until there is a long-term solution. There have also been mental-health workers sent up from Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which oversees Attawapiskat and dozens of other First Nation communities in northwestern and north-central Ontario.

Officials with the North East Local Health Integration Network, which oversees the James Bay coast, said there will be no disruption in service and the temporary staff will remain in place until the housing issue is resolved and full-time workers can be moved to the community. Seven full-time health positions in the community depend on housing before they can be filled.

Skylar Hookimaw, whose died by suicide last year, said he is looking forward to having a youth centre “to provide a safe place for kids.”

There is great hope that we don’t see any more, but there is also the expectation that something might happen

The community, meanwhile, has received shipments of sports equipment and other goods from people in the south, including in Ottawa. Gull said the response from southern communities has been overwhelming.

Officials with Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) said the focus is to move away from a reactionary health that deals with emergencies to a health that is more effective.

“If you sent a whole bunch of psychiatrists to our communities, that is not going to fix the issue; it is more deep-rooted than that,” said Sol Mamakwa, health adviser with NAN.

“What is required is to give back the authority and power to the communities. The current system that exists for health care and mental health is not working.”

Mamakwa said NAN is working on a plan to “transform the health-care system within its territory.”

One of the plans to improve resiliency in First Nations communities is more “land-based healing.” That reflects research from University of Victoria psychologist Christopher Lalonde, who found that communities with the lowest suicide rates are those that are the most culturally healthy and have the strongest communities.

Deputy Grand Chief Jason Smallboy said communities have to move beyond short-term responses to emergencies.

“We are in a perpetual crisis. We have to get out of that and think long-term.”

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