Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to rise in this House, following a very powerful speech by my colleague from Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou, to take part in this historic emergency debate.
I first want to acknowledge that we are on unceded Algonquin territory.
I want to thank the members of our NDP team, and particularly my colleague, the MP for Timmins—James Bay, for pushing for this debate.
Today, as many have said, is not about talk; it is about action. It is about the need for the Prime Minister and his government to take action to end the suicide crisis that is taking place in first nations and northern communities across our country.
On March 9, in Pimicikamak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, leaders declared a state of emergency. In a span of a few weeks, these young people took their lives: Anita, Joni, Cody, Finola, and Lucille. Over 100 suicide attempts have taken place in Cross Lake. Families are grieving. A community is in pain. However, this pain and this trauma is not recent.
Amber Muskego, a courageous young women in Cross Lake, stated, “If you were to drive into my community, you would notice billboards along the road. They are signs of horror, with the pictures of missing and murdered people of our community. Their cases are still unresolved. And if you go on social media today, you will see that it is flooded with the silent pain of hopelessness and misguided trust.”
Suicide on first nations is twice that of the national average. Suicide and self-inflicted injuries are among the leading causes of death for first nations peoples. However, this did not just happen. In fact, the trauma that is apparent through suicide and through the suicide crises across Canada is the direct result of our history of colonization and decades of racist policies passed through this House, approaches, policies, and laws that have sought to silence, intimidate, assimilate, and kill indigenous peoples.
Let me be clear. The despair that many people on first nations face is a direct result of our political and economic policies that have systemically sought to steal the lands of indigenous peoples so that governments and corporations can exploit their wealth without consent. These policies forced first nations people to live on small parcels of land, reserves, often some of the most uninhabitable land in this country. So oppressive was this reserve system that it served as the foundation of the apartheid system in South Africa.
As Julian Brave NoiseCat said this in his powerful article in The Guardian:
This is how First Nations live in the Bantustans of Canada's north [...] They look on as hundreds of millions of dollars worth of resources are mined from their ancestral homelands. This is not an emergency–a catastrophe for which Canada was unprepared and never saw coming. No, this is and always has been part of the design and devastation that colonization wrought.
Let us talk about taking responsibility. It is important that we recognize that at the federal level it has been Liberal and Conservative governments that have implemented such policies. Tonight we have heard many times that this is not a partisan issue, and it is not. However, let us be clear that the reasons behind this epidemic have been partisan. They have been ideological, and they have been founded in the politics of colonization, of white supremacy, and of greed.
It is strangely ironic that today, the day we hold a debate on the suicide epidemic in first nation after first nation, is also the very day of the 140th anniversary of the Indian Act, a piece of legislation that is the symbol of colonialism. This piece of legislation and the way it is imposed on first nations is deeply connected to the oppression that exists today.
As Chief Isadore Day explains, the suicide crisis in Attawapiskat and far too many other ongoing crises across the country are rooted in the poverty and despair that was created by the Indian Act .
The list of policies goes on: residential schools; the administration of colonial science; the theft of land; the prohibition of ceremony, of spirituality, of language; the criminalization and incarceration of indigenous peoples; the forced relocations that so many first nations and Inuit communities have faced; the imposition of the 2% cap, a cap that cut education funding to first nations, a cap that I know many of us have seen first-hand what it has done to first nations in our ridings: mouldy classrooms, freezing portables, not enough books, not enough pencils, and fire systems that do not work. What message does that send to first nations youth?
There are the cuts to band capital funding that have led to inadequate housing, overcrowded homes, lack of water and sewer services, and inadequate services to fight fires. There is the overall prevalence of third world living conditions.
These assimilationist views, these colonialist views that pushed these kinds of policies continue to be perpetuated even today.
A former prime minister of Canada when asked about the suicide epidemic in Attawapiskat perpetuated such assimilationist views in suggesting that first nations peoples should just leave their communities. He said, “The problem is sometimes you cannot. You know, it’s—you know, people have to move sometimes”.
First nations people and many people who work in solidarity with them know that these views are unacceptable.
Where do we go from here? We listen to first nations. First nations have been leading the way. They are calling for a nation-to-nation relationship, a relationship founded in the treaties. They are calling for the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. They are calling for approaches that involve decolonizing our approaches to development, to governance, and to the future.
As Cheryl Hunter Moore said, “I think it's about time that Canada allows us to live freely and not as wards of the state”.
Canada needs to recognize aboriginal sovereignty and respect aboriginal rights once and for all. It means ending the crushing poverty that exists on first nations. It means investing in housing to end the horrific impacts of overcrowding. It means working with communities to create jobs on first nations. It means supporting first nations in their language and cultural education.
As Charlie Ettawacappo from Norway House said, “Now our next step for first nations is to heal. We need to start by teaching our children about the residential school, treaties and our mother tongue...then our children will be proud of who they are and know where they came from.”
It means having serious conversations about suicide and untangling the impacts of colonialism and the need to support LGBT youth.
Alex Wilson, from the University of Saskatchewan, and an Opaskwayak Cree Nation member said, “The issue of LGBTQ first nations people and suicide has yet to be addressed. In northern communities, suicide rates for this group are extremely high. We need to consider LGBTQ people in every and all conversations and solutions when addressing suicide.”
It means listening to first nations youth, youth like Amber Muskego, who are calling for recreation services in their communities, who want a drop-in centre, like young people have in communities across the country. It means ending poverty. After all, we know that reconciliation requires action.
As I conclude, I think of the elders, the strong leaders, the incredible women, the supportive men, the inspiring young people who live on first nations in our north and across the country.
I think of their fight, their resistance, and their protection of their traditional teachings and knowledge. I think of their commitment to the next generation. I think of how Amber Muskego, that young woman in Cross Lake from Pimicikamak, said that she is a voice for the voiceless. Today, let us join our voices to that of Amber Muskego and young first nations people across this country in saying never again and saying that together we will work in solidarity and commit to action so that no other life is lost and we can truly achieve justice.