A gathering of First Nations families and non-Aboriginal activists occupied the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada office in Vancouver on Monday morning April 18.
The Vancouver protest was part of a series of actions nationwide. The immediate goal was to demand action on the ongoing suicide crisis in Attawapiskat, but the conditions that have sparked the crisis are systemic across Canada, according to organizer Chrissie Oleman.
“We have parents and children and we have allies here,” Oleman told Windspeaker.
Those allies included activists from the Black Lives Matter and No One is Illegal movements. That was no coincidence, Oleman said.
“My friend Gerri Lynne Webster was speaking at the Black Lives Matter rally [Toronto April 17]. I checked in with her before her talk, and I said ‘Please speak about Attawapiskat,’ and she said, ‘Yes. That’s first on my agenda.’”
Oleman said Webster was already in discussions with the activists to set up a protest. Things happened quickly from there.
“I was going to wait for her, but I just started messaging. We all talked; we all agreed on it, and now we’re here.”
Oleman said that, like most Indigenous people in Canada, she has lost friends and relatives to suicide. While the Attawapiskat crisis has caught national attention, “There’s lots of it that doesn’t get on the news.”
For young people living without a positive sense of community, and not feeling that they have any future, self-inflicted death takes on a different meaning, Oleman said.
“When it becomes normalized, it becomes an option. It becomes a ‘viable option,’ and it is not something that is unacceptable or abhorrent.”
By 10 a.m., about 25 people had gathered in the office, but there were already signs that INAC staff were attempting to stop the flow of supporters and make things uncomfortable for the protesters, Oleman said.
“It was overheard at the front desk that they were going to stop people from getting in,” she said.
Oleman said the mothers brought a few drinks and snacks for their children, but not enough for a whole day. One mother was delegated to make a food run, and there were concerns that she would not be allowed back up to the office.
“She just left to get some food, and we’ll see if they let her back in,” she said, adding that the INAC staff would likely give her the runaround at the door.
“I am assuming they will [eventually] let her back in. I don’t think they are going to starve our kids.”
Oleman said at that point, the Vancouver Police were not involved. An INAC staff member (but “not a security person”) was posted at the entrance of the building and the elevator system was blocking entry to the sixth floor, where the protest was taking place.
Participants focused much of their attention on the children, Oleman said. The goal was to make it a fun learning experience that they will remember.
“We’re here to show how easy it is to bring positivity into the kids’ lives. We are two single mothers and we brought our own skills and our own limited resources to bring workshops and culture and positivity to the kids that are present.”
At the same time, the children are also learning about the traumatic events in Attawapiskat, she added.
“My children know why they’re here. They’re here to represent the children in Attawapiskat whose houses are falling down around them.
“They have very simple demands. These kids have rallied together and have had that very simple brainstorming board. They want the YMCA to be available; they want a community centre; they want a library – things that kids should have. Safe housing, running water… and food that they can afford to eat. Nobody should have to pay that amount for food.
“I am a single mother living under the poverty line and I am malnourished as it is. I can’t imagine how parents [in Attawapiskat] who give up their food for their kids… what are they living on?”
Late in the day, it was reported that Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett had announced federal support for “a properly-equipped youth centre, as well as some programming for young people” in Attawapiskat. The announcement followed a meeting between Bennett, Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh and NDP Aboriginal Affairs critic Charlie Angus.
On Monday morning, an INAC staff member took Windspeaker’s request for comment and promised a prompt reply. At 2:30 PST, INAC media relations officer Shawn Jackson emailed a statement:
“We recognize the public’s right to engage in peaceful protests and lawful assembly and are balancing that against the need to ensure public and staff well-being.”
Jackson also provided a link to the INAC website, which advised: “Due to exceptional circumstances, the following INAC offices are operating but closed to the public [Gatineau, Winnipeg, Regina and Vancouver], including the publicly accessible Registration Office (while walk-up services are not available, information lines and Internet services are operational).
“All other INAC regional offices and business centres are open for regular business.”