News | First Nation struggles to maintain order

State of emergency declared October 21 in isolated Ontario community

Chief Lewis Nate of the Eabametoong First Nation (pronounced Yab-mAh-tung) was tired during his interview with The Daily, because there had been another fire in his community the night before. On October 21, he declared the Eabametoong – which has a population of 1,200 and is one of 28 remote fly-in communities in northern Ontario – to be in a state of emergency.

“It kind of escalated, the last two homicides that we had…also the amount of drugs that [are] coming into our community,” Nate said in describing the situation before October 21. “It’s compounding into one big problem. It’s not something that happened overnight…but it was just too much to handle – we’re a small community.”

“Right now it’s pretty hard to work when you’re numb from all this stuff and it’s hard to get motivated,” Nate continued.

“We didn’t only have these two homicides, we’ve had 13 deaths in the last eleven months. If you have one death…that’s hard, but when you’re having a lot of deaths, you know, that’s really, really hard…You’ll get numb.”

According to Sergeant Jackie George of the Nishnawabe-Aski Police Services (NAPS), the problem of prescription drug abuse in Eabametoong has been noticeably increasing for the last five years. But in the view of Denise Fontaine, principal of John C. Yesno Education Centre – which teaches 336 Junior Kindergaten to Grade nine students and was the site of an arson in late September – the events prompting the declaration of emergency occurred suddenly.

“In a very short time…[people] just started acting out, and I really do believe it was displaced anger [and] frustration – [there is] no safe outlet for expressing frustration and anger…[so] that expression of anger trickles down to others you didn’t intend,” said Fontaine.

State of emergency
The arson of John C. Yesno resulted in the school’s closure for three and a half weeks along with $200,000 worth of smoke and water damage. The arson was bookended by two murders of local youth. Other recent incidents include the fire-bombing of a church minister’s house while five people were inside.

“It seems to be the perfect storm…all of the conditions that already existed that are compelling, complex and dire are boiling over in this community,” said Nanda Casucci-Byrne, Chief of Staff in the Ontario Lieutenant Governor’s Office.

Casucci-Byrne added that in her eight years at the Lieutenant Governor’s office she had never before heard of a community declaring a state of emergency.

Nate explained the process behind his declaration: “We were having conference calls before that…to see how we could get help, but that wasn’t going anywhere, so that’s we decided…we had enough of talk we wanted to bring it to light- admit that we have a problem.”

In response to the declaration of emergency, Eabametoong received two Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officers to help the five currently policing the community. One OPP officer stayed for two days; the second officer is estimated to remain in the community for up to five weeks.

“It’s short-term assistance for our police service,” said George. “The Nishnawabe-Aski Police Service, we have jurisdiction there. We have five members there but we need [to] double that. And we can’t double it because the federal and provincial bodies are not coming to the [negotiating] table.”

“[The OPP officers] accompany local officers during their shifts, they just ride together and learn from each other,” said Band Administrator Andrew Yesno.

Yesno also noted that the OPP officers help maintain 24-hour policing, “whereas before we had officers work from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and then 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. And then there was always a gap between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. where there was no police.”

Response to the crisis
After Eabametoong’s declaration prominent vistors flooded the community. Chris Bentley, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, was among them. So was Ruth Ann Onley, wife of Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor David Onley, who came with Sharon Johnston, Governor General David Johnston’s wife.

Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) and Health Canada officials visited the community on November 5, and Greg Rickford, MP for Kenora, the local riding, visited last week.

Rickford acknowledged that structural issues were behind the recent violence. “It’s the underlying issues that give rise to [these acts] that we are ultimately interested in,” he said.

“There’s been a lot of response from people in Canada to help,” Yesno said.

“We want to be there on a personal basis…it means a great deal to express our support on a tangible basis,” Casucci-Byrne said. “[The visit was] trying to let them know that people care, that they’re not forgotten, that others are listening.”

However, some are still pessimistic about Eabametoong’s position. Nate recalled seeing a headline in the Toronto Sun that read “Fort Hopeless” (Fort Hope is another name for Eabametoong First Nation).

“Now what kind of message is that to the people? We’re not hopeless,” Nate said, “I’d rather be here than any place else in the world.”

He is not taking the derision to heart, though. “You’ll always get that negativity no matter what,” he noted. “Anytime you want to make a change people will act negatively.”

In an email to The Daily, INAC Communications Officer Peter Sero said the ministry was committed to investing $400,000 in Eabametoong.

“[Funds will] help because we don’t budget for crises like homicides,” Yesno explained. “We get a limited amount of funds every year and what we do is we create a budget and make sure that we still get …[all the] basic things to make a town run, but we don’t really budget for emergencies or for having to charter for counselors to come in or trauma units.”

Going forward
Yesno said that money originally allocated for services such as water, sewage, and road clearing has been spent on combating various crises the community has faced. Nate said that up $174,000 of the band’s funds have been spent in order to deal with the recent string of emergencies.

Some in the community are skeptical that the INAC funding will make a dent in Eabametoong’s problems.

“Nobody believes in long-term plans – they say they do but they don’t supply funding for long-term projects,” Fontaine said. “There’s a fictional belief that Aboriginal communities get whatever they ask for.”

“We’re not looking for the quick fix, we’re looking for sustainability… Our kids need opportunities that they don’t get, that are easily available outside of a fly-in community,” Fontaine continued, referring to benefits students could have from external professionals leading workshops.

“We’re not just asking for money, we’re also asking for the resources … I think that’s one of the big misconceptions out there that we’re just asking for money but that’s not the reality,” added Yesno. “We want the professional help to come and help us, and to help us turn this around.”

Nate sees a bigger dilemma facing his community. “I think the number one [is] going back to the land. [There are] two things that we [have] lost: one is the connection to the Creator, and the second was the connection to our homeland, to the traditional area,” he said.

Nate outlined a seven-point community development plan that has been forged through ongoing discussions between members of the council and community members.

“We’re meeting with the people, especially our elders and youth because they’re the forgotten lot,” Nate said. “We haven’t really had contact with them over the years…we’re kind of losing touch with them. The engagement with the seven-point plan [and] the ownership will come from them. If it’s going to work, its going to have to come from them, not the chief and council.”

Nate and Fontaine emphasized that internalized tension and emotions are a factor in the outbursts they have seen this year.

“Things have been happening over the years and a lot of internal stuff too that needs to be dealt with,” Nate said. “There are some things maybe that are uncomfortable, things that will come out. So I’ve got to walk that fine line too, I’m offending some community members because of this…because you know the truth hurts: that is the bottom line.”

“We have to start talking life into our community,” Nate continued.

“All we’ve been talking about is this person’s dead or this prescription drug issue and so forth, we’ve got to start talking about other things – about the future that lies ahead.”