Aboriginal leaders from across B.C. are calling on Canada's new federal government to step up its support to First Nations communities in the aftermath of a devastating attack at a band office near Lillooet.
Last Wednesday, Oct. 14, an assailant entered several Bridge River Indian Band office buildings and began beating employees with a hammer, injuring 11, including two who were left in serious condition.
Police attended to find the attacker restrained by individuals on the scene. Police said they were unable to transport the suspect as he had become unconscious and unresponsive and could not be resuscitated. He has been identified by the coroner as 22-year-old David James.
"Our band office staff had been working with this young man to develop a realistic plan for stable housing, and a way for him to pay his rent," said Chief Susan James, who is not related to the assailant, in a release. "He had complex social and health needs that our staff did not have the resources or training to adequately respond to. And when the situation became overwhelming for him, he lashed out."
James went on to explain that the band's social development staff are "essentially financial clerks" without the training or tools to provide the type of social and counselling support many in the community so desperately require.
It's a challenge that's not isolated to Bridge River, either, noted Tl'Azt'En Nation Dr. Terri Aldred, who does outreach work in isolated First Nations communities.
"Very oftentimes First Nations communities are staffed, thankfully, by a lot of local people, but unfortunately they're often asked to be put in roles that they haven't had the opportunity to train for, which can create a lot of unsafe situations, and in some cases, tragic situations," she said. "I feel like a relatively obvious solution is to provide training for things like basic first aid (and handling trauma) for everybody in the community so there's that baseline."
The answer, said Aldred, is not simply throwing money at the problem, but realizing that each community has its own specific issues that can only be addressed if the members of that community are part of the discussion.
"There's a really big need to try and build and allocate resources now with an indigenous focus and an indigenous input, so that the outcome will be better because the people it's intended for will have more say on how to make it more effective," Aldred noted.
As the Xwisten heal from last week's shocking attack in Bridge River, First Nations leaders were quick to point a finger at outgoing Prime Minister Stephen Harper for continually ignoring the needs of Aboriginal and indigenous peoples over the past decade.
"I think the incident in Bridge River underscores the fact that there's an overwhelming need for dramatic change in this country in terms of Aboriginal people," said Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, who said continued underfunding has left aboriginal communities unable to combat severe poverty — and all the social and cultural ills that go with it.
"After the Conservatives took power 10 years ago, the first thing they did was reject the funding commitment made by outgoing Prime Minister Paul Martin — often referred to as The Kelowna Accord — of $5.1 billion in desperately needed new funding investments in the areas of health, education, housing and economic development," said Phillip. "It's a well established fact that the Harper government's relationship with Aboriginal people in this country for the last 10-year period has been very adversarial and outright hostile."
The Grand Chief is hopeful that a change in leadership in Ottawa, combined with the eye-opening findings in this summer's Truth and Reconciliation Report, will usher in a new era for Canada's indigenous peoples.
"I think the greatest progress we've made has been the release of the Truth and Reconciliation report, where Justice (Murray) Sinclair described the residential school program as 'cultural genocide,'" said Phillip. "The 94 recommendations that came out of the report are incredibly important for governments to begin implementing, but my point is it's raised Canadians' awareness that there is a very shady and shameful dimension to Canadian history.
"Given the TRC report and everything that it represents, I have some optimism with the outcome of this election that we will be able to move forward in this country and begin to take ownership of these issues."
Neither Squamish Nation Chief Ian Campbell nor Lil'wat Nation Chief Dean Nelson could be reached by deadline.