POLITICS

AFN's Atleo, others offer sympathy, support for remote Neskantaga First Nation

04/18/2013 04:48 EDT | Updated 06/18/2013 05:12 EDT
OTTAWA - The Assembly of First Nations is adding its voice to a chorus of condolence for a remote northern Ontario community reeling from the recent deaths of two young people.

National Chief Shawn Atleo says his thoughts are with the residents of the isolated Neskantaga First Nation, which declared a state of emergency Wednesday.

The community, nearly 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, has seen seven sudden deaths since the start of the year — four of them suicides, including two in the last week.

Atleo says the community needs the "unconditional and full support" of all Canadians, particularly given its small and closely knit nature.

Community and regional leaders declared the emergency to get help from the Red Cross and the Ontario government's emergency management office.

Chief Peter Moonias says he also needs government help in putting together a long-term plan to confront Neskantaga's problems with prescription drug addiction.

Moonias said the community, not far from the Ring of Fire mining development, faces overwhelming pressure to respond to the demands of both the mining industry and the provincial and federal governments.

"There are no treatments here, and more and more young people are taking their lives. This is unacceptable and something must change," he said in a statement.

"We are getting frustrated and concerned for our young people and entire community that Health Canada has not stepped up to ensure we have adequate resourcing available to deal with and prevent such crippling incidents from taking place."

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq also offered her condolences Thursday, telling the House of Commons that Health Canada has sent additional nurses as well as counselling staff to the community.

"Our government takes the situation seriously, which is why we provided funding for drug and alcohol abuse programs in the community," Aglukkaq said.

"It is also why the community received funding to prevent and combat youth solvent abuse."

Emergency Management Ontario confirmed Thursday that it has received the declaration of emergency, and is consulting community leaders to determine what specific help they might need.

"EMO will continue to work with both our federal partners and the First Nations community to co-ordinate support during this situation," spokesman Andrew Morrison said in a statement.

Asked Thursday about the state of emergency in Neskantaga, Ontario Aboriginal Affairs Minister David Zimmer called out the federal government for failing to attend a recent two-day meeting in Winnipeg with provincial and territorial aboriginal ministers, as well as First Nations leaders.

"The federal minister of aboriginal affairs was not there," Zimmer complained.

"All of the provinces want to work and do something about this; it should just be in our hearts and in our souls to want to tackle this issue, and we need the federal government to work with us."