Speech – 2016.04.12 – Attawapiskat

MP Len Webber in the House of Commons


Emergency Debate on Attawapiskat

April 12, 2016

Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to rise in the House this evening. I will be splitting my time with the hon. member for Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan.

As always, I thank my constituents of Calgary Confederation for their ongoing support and encouragement, and the opportunity to speak to important issues such as the one we are discussing tonight.

I could not have imagined that I would be rising here to speak under such dire circumstances for the people of Attawapiskat. In my prior political life as an MLA in Alberta, I was the minister for aboriginal relations. This position allowed me to see first hand the challenges facing many of our indigenous people, and the grief and the stress it placed on every member of these small and close-knit communities.

Just over six years ago I lost my wife Heather. Nothing can prepare us for it and it hurts more than anything we can imagine. In my times of need and my times of grief, I was fortunate to have a strong network of family and friends, and in particular, counselling to support me and my three daughters.

Sadly, this is not the reality of most in Attawapiskat. I cannot imagine what it must be like to have lost loved family members and not have the proper support or help. The stress, the despair, the unanswered questions must all be so stressful and seemingly never ending. It is with these thoughts in mind that I cannot even imagine what it must be like to be a parent in Attawapiskat at the moment.

Parents must be on the edge like never before, wondering if their family will be the next to suffer a challenge or a tragedy. The loss of a child is the most tragic of all family tragedies, yet we sadly see this becoming a routine part of many reserves, especially at Attawapiskat.

I realize it is not only the youth in these communities that are being directly affected by these suicides. People are losing their parents, their spouses, their siblings, their friends and their relatives. The community is dying from the inside out and the government needs to take urgent and defining action.

The Canadian Mental Health Association reports that the suicide rate in Canada is 15 people per 100,000. We cannot even compare that with Attawapiskat, which only has an on-reserve population of about 1,500 or so. Based on the national suicide rate and its population, this community should expect to see one suicide every four to five years, but right now we are at the point where we are counting mere hours between suicide attempts.

Before I speak more about Attawapiskat, let me make it clear that this is not a problem on this reserve alone, or among this community alone.

In my past, I have visited many communities like the ones we are discussing tonight and the conditions vary greatly from one to another. However, it ought to shock many Canadians that suicide and self-inflicted injuries are among the leading cause of death for our indigenous people. That is shocking and tragic embarrassment for a country like Canada.

Aboriginal leaders have called on the federal government to develop a national strategy to combat indigenous suicide, but this sounds like a lot of reason to talk rather than to act. We already know many of the causes of their despair and why people turn to suicide. Any previous suicide or mental health study has dozens of recommendation that the government should look into right now.

There are those, and there are many, who suggest we should relocate this community to some urban area to solve the problems. I do not believe that is a solution. Statistics show that among indigenous populations, the suicide rate is no better when they live in our urban areas.

The sad reality is that the federal government has responsibilities to serve these communities and it is not upholding them. Folks in these communities do not have access to the resources they need to prevent suicide or to deal with the grief following one.

Many of us in this House were affected by the sudden and tragic loss of our friend recently, member of Parliament Jim Hillyer. Every member of this House and their staff were offered grief counselling, and it was immediate. The plan was a good plan, and it was in place. It responded to our needs, as it should have.

Unfortunately, we are not offering this same level of service to those we are supposed to be providing services for. Governments of all stripes have watched Attawapiskat suffer suicide problems for decades, and still the problem persists. We must help Attawapiskat.

Tonight I am asking the minister to take a proactive approach with these communities and to please not let their situation become as dire as Attawapiskat. We need to see the government take a proactive approach to these issues, to tackle them sooner, when it is relatively easier and the chance of success is higher. Once we have a total collapse, like the one at Attawapiskat, it takes a lot more resources to help the community than if we had intervened earlier.

I cannot imagine what it must be like for health care workers in this community. I gather from news reports that they do not even have the necessary training to deal with these mental health issues. The stress, the pressure, and the feelings of despairs amongst these workers must be tremendous. I imagine that their families are also suffering as a result.

The problems in the community are not new, which means that these workers are not quitters. They have endured, and they have tried to do what they can. We need to help them. Their courage is unbelievable, and their determination is unmatched. However, they too have a limit.

Through this entire process, I am personally asking the minister to make sure that these workers get the support and the help they need. In many ways, they remind me of our soldiers who have suffered after witnessing horrific circumstances on the battlefield. Tragically, we know what outcomes are possible when we ignore their needs too.

This community is broken, and it will take a lot more than a few brave social workers to fix it. I took great care this evening not to blame anyone for this problem because I do not believe that would help. For far too long, too many have expended too much energy blaming others for the problems instead of putting that energy to good use.

I would like to see all governments, including first nations leaders, stop the blame game and instead focus on solutions. I would like to see honesty. Let us be honest about what works and what does not, what could work, and what would be a waste of time and money. Sadly, both are in a limited supply. I want the government to work proactively to identify other communities before things get bad. It would save time and money, but most importantly it would save lives.

I truly hope that we can do more than just speak to the issue tonight. As they say, when all is said and done, there is often a lot said and little done. Let us hope that that is not the case here.