A First Nation in Distress

Attawapiskat  Ontario, Chief Bruce Shisheesh declared a state of emergency in April 2016.  The community was no longer capable of dealing with the rising counts of suicide, citing one day where 11 people attempted to take their lives in 1 night.   As a response to this crisis, the Federal and Provincial health ministers sent supports including nurses, mental health professionals and the Emergency Medical Assistance team (EMAT).  (Rutherford, 2016)

Sending in teams of health professionals can be viewed as a temporary solution in a crisis where members of a community live without adequate means to address their social determinants of health.  Similar to previous weeks readings, one cannot heal the issue (suicide) when clients are returning to the conditions (poverty, lack of food, water) that have spawned this ideation.  In addition, sending in a team of non-aboriginal “outsiders” to address a mental health crisis is tough as psychotherapy involves building trust relationships between clients and therapists that should ideally be lasting; but sending in these types of support systems are necessary as they serve to ramp up response, bring attention to the issue and support staff burned-out on site (The Canadian Press, 2016).  Fundamentally, sending in support is absolutely necessary but additional support needs to be long-term and address broader health needs.

Mew et al., 2018, subsequently completed an environmental scan of emergency response systems and services in remote First Nation communities in Ontario. They engaged the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) community which is a political grouping of 49 First Nations communities in Northern Ontario which includes Attawapiskat to determine their perception of healthcare delivery.  While health services are among the most lacking, they serve a population that has elevated rates of chronic and infectious diseases when compared to non-indigenous communities.  The article described a broad array of service delivery disparities, including the lack of a 9-1-1 system in many areas, lack of trained healthcare workers, burn-out of volunteers preforming community outreach and a general ineffective mode of healthcare delivery.

In May 2016, the Ontario government made a commitment to spend $222 million over 3 years to enhance health care in First Nations communities (Galloway, 2018).  This plan includes the delivery of care by the Indigenous for Indigenous communities.  It includes enhancements to primary care, mental health and wellness, healing and treatment centres by introducing indigenous healthcare worker teams to staff and deliver these services.  First Nations themselves are ultimately the most knowledgeable in their community needs and building a system that would be most effective at supporting their people.  While outcomes from these efforts still need to be realized, it appears to be an approach similar to British Columbia where the province eventually took the lead in supporting Aboriginal Health.  Ontario needs to keep these important advancements at the forefront of political agendas if there is any chance of creating sustainable programs.


Galloway, G.  (2018, February 13).  Ontario breaks jurisdictional barriers with vow for First Nations health care.  The Globe and Mail.  Retrieved from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/ontario-breaks-jurisdictional-barriers-with-vow-for-first-nations-health-care/article37973252/

Mew, E. J., Ritchie, S. D., VanderBurgh, D., Beardy, J. L., Gordon, J., Fortune, M., and Orkin, A. M. (2017). An environmental scan of emergency response systems and services in remote first nations communities in northern ontario. International Journal of Circumpolar Health, 76(1), 1. Retrieved from http://0-search.ebscohost.com.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edb&AN=127063098&site=eds-live

Rutherford, K.  (2016, April 10).  Attawapiskat declares state of emergency over spate of suicide attempts.  CBC News.  Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/sudbury/attawapiskat-suicide-first-nations-emergency-1.3528747

The Canadian Press. (2016, April 17).  Can short-term interventions help places like Attawapiskat?  Macleans.  Retrieved from https://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/can-short-term-interventions-help-places-like-attawapiskat/

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