A small group of protestors setting up camp outside the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) office in Regina were met with locked doors on Monday morning.
The camp-out is an extension of a protest on Friday to call attention to the suicide and mental health crisis on many reserves across Canada.
The office was also closed for the day on Friday. A note on the door both days gave no specific explanation, but apologized for the inconvenience and directed people to call a 1-800 number for assistance.
“It seems they think that we’re getting ready to storm their offices, but we’re actually not at all interested in being inside,” explained organizer, Robyn Pitawanakwat. “We want to bring attention to the issues and I think that we can do that best from out here.”
The suicide crisis in Attawapiskat inspired protests in Toronto and Winnipeg to show solidarity with the remote Ontario reserve.
“We are wanting more than band-aid solutions for communities in crisis,” Pitawanakwat explained the purpose behind the protest.
She pointed out that three First Nations communities in Saskatchewan also declared mental health emergencies last month and those needs have yet to be addressed.
“It seems like all the attention is being put on Attawapiskat, and they need the attention, but they are not the only ones that need the attention.”
By noon, about seven tents were set up outside the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development office on Albert Street. One banner reads ‘INAC Over-flow Housing’. Pitanawanakwat said the tents also represent the issue of over-crowding and inadequate housing on many reserves.
She said the issues are linked to the effects of First Nations people being managed in every capacity without the autonomy or the funding to manage their own affairs.
So far on Monday, Pitawanakwat said the reaction to their protest had been mainly positive, with drivers honking horns in support and passers-by stopping to ask questions.
“The only negative comments we’ve actually heard is when people get to the door expecting to get in, and they’re turned away by a locked door,” she said.
Regina-based anti-racism advocate Bob Hughes also came out on to support the cause. He said the mental health crisis affects not only northern and remote reserves, but also Aboriginal people living in the inner city.
“As a mental health worker I’ve seen the effects of the hopelessness and I understand that it speaks to the broader issue of self-determination,” he said.
Hughes said people are frustrated because they have demonstrated many times before.
“They’ve sort of worked to try to cure some of the symptoms, but obviously it comes back. The hopelessness continues on and on and on,” he said. “This is an opportunity now for the country to make some monumental change here to bring about a condition for self-determination and to overcome the despair.”
The federal media relations department at INAC responded to News Talk Radio’s request for comment with a short emailed 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.”
A post on the website explained that five offices including: Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, Vancouver and the headquarters in Gatineau Quebec are all closed to the public due to “exceptional circumstances”.
“The Government of Canada is committed to ensuring minimal disruption of services to Canadians during this time. To ensure this, INAC has setup alternative ways for individuals to contact the department,” the news release stated.
The website went on to explain that while walk up services are not available, internet and information services are operating.