A statement by Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo MP Cathy McLeod in Parliament this week:
MADAM SPEAKER, on January 30, I stood in this House and asked that the Prime Minister retract what I considered to be condescending and out-of-touch comments that he made not once but twice. It has been 105 days since then, but he has done no such thing. I will share with members a bit of the background to these particular comments.
In Saskatoon at a town hall meeting on January 25, the Prime Minister was asked why very little of the funds promised in budget 2016 had actually made it to the communities that needed them the most. This was at a time when many communities had declared states of emergency over the suicide crisis. It was a particularly devastating time for many communities, which unfortunately still continues to this day.
What the Prime Minister did say was that money alone would not solve all the issues in remote indigenous communities. I actually agree. It is more than just money that is going to make a difference. Then the comments took a very bizarre turn. He stated:
“I’ve spoken with a number of chiefs who said, ‘You know, we need a youth centre…. You know, we need TVs and lounges and sofas so they can hang around.’ And when a chief says that to me, I pretty much know they haven’t actually talked to their young people because most of the young people I’ve talked to want a place to store their canoes and paddles so they can connect back out on the land and a place with internet access so they can do their homework.”
Instead of apologizing for painting all youth with the same brush, the Prime Minister actually repeated the same answer in Winnipeg. Some first nations chiefs have rightfully called him out. Numerous posts appeared on Twitter asking the Prime Minister to apologize. My parliamentary colleague, the member for Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou, wrote a tongue-in-cheek open letter in February calling for the creation of a national canoe and paddle program. He wrote:
“As Prime Minister, you wrote to every member of Cabinet affirming that your relationship with Indigenous Peoples is the most important one, so who am I to argue with your recent comments that you know what is best for Indigenous youth facing so many critical issues including a suicide epidemic. “
Like the member, I sit on the House of Commons Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs, which recently wrapped up a study of the ongoing and horrific suicide crisis among Canada’s indigenous communities, and especially the youth. Many witnesses came forward with very powerful and emotional testimony, and also told us what they thought would make their lives better.
We heard that indigenous youth have far higher rates of suicide than the national average. We heard from parents who had lost children, chiefs who had lost community members, youth who had lost friends. One man testified that he wanted to take his own life at the age of 12. We heard from a heartbroken father who had lost his son just six months earlier. We heard of the need for consistent mental health services, good education, well-built homes, safe drinking water, recreational facilities, and opportunities for jobs. One passionate young man told us, “You see, a lot of suicides can be linked to low economic opportunity. They don’t feel there’s a lot for them out there. Sitting on welfare is not a great option for them and it gets depressing”. Grand Chief Sheila North echoed those comments, talking about the need to provide hope, “How is a young man, a young father, and a young husband supposed to feel when they don’t have any jobs…?”
The response by the Prime Minister was truly unacceptable, and I hope we have a different kind of response.