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PM offers meeting with chief

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OTTAWA—Amid political pressure, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has sent a letter to the chief of Attawapiskat First Nation—the beleaguered Ontario community that has made headlines around the globe due to its suicide crisis—to offer a meeting in Ottawa.

Trudeau’s letter comes after the reserve’s chief and the New Democrat MP for the area, Charlie Angus, requested the prime minister reach out to the community as it continues to grapple with ongoing trauma and the lack of a permanent mental health worker.

“I am deeply concerned with the ongoing situation in your community and with the urgency and gravity of this situation in mind, I am unhesitatingly willing to accept your offer to meet,” the letter said.

“I am agonized to see the number of suicide attempts by young people in Attawapiskat, and I wish to express my sincere support for the families and community members who are affected by the situation.”

The letter also noted the Prime Minister’s Office will be in contact shortly to arrange a meeting in Ottawa and noted Health minister Jane Philpott plans to visit the community.

“I stand with all of you as we work together to forge a durable solution for the youth in Attawapiskat and those around the country who face a similar struggle,” it said.

The isolated, poverty-racked Northern Ontario reserve made news around the world last month after it declared a state of emergency amid a spike in suicide attempts.

Trudeau’s willingness to meet the chief is a positive gesture, Angus said, but he stressed that dialogue must be followed with action because young people in the community can’t afford to wait any longer.

“Canada is being judged on the world stage right now for their inaction,” Angus said in an interview.

“This is the prime minister’s moment to cease it and move beyond the photo-op and say, ‘We will make the change.’

“Lives are at stake,” he stressed. “I don’t know how else to put it.”

Earlier yesterday, Indigenous Affairs minister Carolyn Bennett also faced questions at a Commons’ committee about the budget and the government’s spending on aboriginal programs.

The Liberal government earmarked $8.4 billion in its fiscal blueprint for areas including education, reserve water, and child and family services—a figure that was billed as “historic” by Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde.

The funding significantly ramps up in later years, with $801 million set to flow in the last year of the five-year period, which falls outside the Liberal mandate.

One of the most vocal critics in wake of the budget’s release was Cindy Blackstock, a social worker who spent nine years fighting the government on its underfunding of child welfare services on reserve that culminated in a landmark ruling in January.

Blackstock said the $71 million that is set to flow for child welfare this year falls far short of what is needed to close gap.

In fact, she pegs that figure at $200 million this year alone.

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