Under fire, Health Canada announces mental health workers for Attawapiskat

Health Canada said Wednesday it will fund two additional mental health workers and a case manager for youth in Attawapiskat to assist with the northern Ontario reserve's suicide crisis -- a move that comes after the federal government came under fire by the region's MP and the community's chief.

OTTAWA — Health Canada said Wednesday it will fund two additional mental health workers and a case manager for youth in Attawapiskat to assist with the northern Ontario reserve’s suicide crisis — a move that comes after the federal government came under fire by the region’s MP and the community’s chief.

The department has yet to indicate when the workers will be on the ground in the troubled community and what level of training will be required.

Outside the Commons, Health Minister Jane Philpott could only say an update will be provided once more information is available.

“We are working on a long-term plan for responding to the needs of Attawapiskat, as well as other communities that are facing similar concerns,” she said.

“We’re very pleased to be able to announce that we will make the resources available to make sure that there are long-term solutions and we’ll work with our partners to make that happen.”

NDP MP Charlie Angus cancelled a high-profile trip to the United Nations this week to visit the beleaguered reserve instead to highlight the lack of federal support for youth.

He was baffled by the fact the Liberal government didn’t seem to know the reserve’s permanent mental health worker wasn’t available to residents under 18.

Angus said he was pleased there will now be additional resources for the community but he remains upset false information was provided about what is available to address a crisis so severe it garnered global attention.

“What really concerns me is 30 days into a serious suicide crisis, they either didn’t know what was on the ground or they were making facts up,” Angus said.

“Either way, that’s really not credible behaviour given the severe risk we are facing with young people.”

After multiple requests from The Canadian Press for information, the department confirmed Wednesday there is a permanent mental health worker in the community from the Weeneebayko Health Authority who focuses on adult services.

A youth wellness worker and family intervention worker with a provincial children’s aid agency — Payukotayno Child and Family Services — are also in the community.

The Ontario government announced Monday it will keep an emergency response team on the ground to assist with the crisis.

Indigenous suicide is grave concern across the country, Angus added, noting it is one of the reasons his party has been pushing the Liberal government on the complete lack of mental health dollars contained within its recent budget.

“Attawapiskat, right now, has international news and we are still not fixing the problem on the ground,” he said.

“What about all the other communities that have been asking for help that don’t have the mental health workers where young people are at risk and are not getting any treatment.”

There is serious dysfunction inside Health Canada on its inability or refusal to respond to the serious health and mental issues facing indigenous youth, he added.

“We have to change the operating culture in Health Canada where they are continually denying services to children and families based on some bureaucratic decision to save pennies when lives are at risk.”

In January, The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found Ottawa discriminated against First Nations youth in its delivery of child welfare services on reserve.

“The panel acknowledges the suffering of those First Nations children and families who are or have been denied an equitable opportunity to remain together or to be reunited in a timely manner,” the ruling said.

Cindy Blackstock — a social worker who spent nine years fighting the government on the issue — said the $71 million that is set to flow this year on child welfare falls far short of what is needed to close gap.

She pegs that figure at $200 million this year alone.

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