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Ten Indigenous mothers, women, and children are currently occupying Vancouver's Indigenous and Northern Affairs offices (INAC) in solidarity with the Attawapiskat Youth Council. The group has been there since Monday April 18 and have vowed to stay until the Attawapiskat Youth Council's demands are met.
After 11 suspected suicide attempts within 24 hours, Attawapiskat delcared a state of emergency on April 9. Activists in Winnipeg, Ottawa, Regina, Gatineau, Toronto and Vancouver are determined to occupy INAC until the federal government meets the demands of the Attawapiskat Youth Council.
A rally in support of the #OccupyINAC activists and Attawapiskat community was organized in Vancouver on April 19. Nearly 100 people gathered below the windows where the activists and their small children could be seen watching the rally from above.
The rally began with a Coast Salish Prayer song in honor of the #OccupyINAC activists and the Attawapiskat community. The crowd slapped their fists into the palms of their hands in unison to mimic a drum as they sang. They raised their fists in solidarity and cheered as the activists waved back.
A residential school survivor, who identified himself as Walter, encouraged the crowd and the activists to continue demonstrating against INAC. "We have to keep fighting with INAC," he said. "They'll say, 'who are you people anyway?' We are the caretakers of this land."
Activist, Jerilynn Snuxyaltwa Webster and her child are one of families who have been occupying INAC's Vancouver office since April 18. Jerilyn's mother, Barbara Webster was also in attendance at the rally. Waving enthusiastically at her grandchild, Barbara Webster shouted, "It's your grandmother! I have some goodies for you! Hopefully I can get up there! Keep going! You're doing the right thing!"
Poet, Valeen Jules discussed mental health among Indigenous youth and her inspiration for writing poetry. "As Indigenous youth, we often hide our pain because we don't want anyone else to feel obligated to empathize with us. But when I hear my peers speak about suicide, I don't hear them telling us how much they want to die. I hear them showing us how much they want to live," said Jules.
"And so, the youth of Attawapiskat, as well as in my community along the west coast to Vancouver Island, have given me the courage to use poetry as a way of healing because I have experienced the same pain and the same struggle as them," she continued.
"It's going to take a collective community, like you see gathered here, an intergenerational community, to heal and to spread that decolonial love. And I believe that decolonial love gives us a space to grieve together and grow together and be grateful together. And I also believe that decolonial love is the highest form of liberation."
#OccupyINAC supporter and Indigenous activist, Justin Bige called the mental health crisis in Attawapiskat a genocidal tactic. "We are supposed to think that the Indian residential school system was the end of genocidal tactics but the Indian Act is still here. Intergenerational trauma is the reason why this is happening. This isn't an accident either. It's desired by the settlers state because it's a lot easier for a settler state to exist when there are no Native people to say 'we were here first,'" said Bige.
Tasha Nijjar, the MC of the rally, connected the activists and the #OccupyINAC supporters through a phone call. Nijjar placed the speaker of her cellular phone next to a megaphone. Through the static, the excited laughter of the children occupying INAC with their mothers could be heard.
An activist shared a poem she had written through the speaker, "Children of Attawapiskat, we hear you. Your demands are loud and clear. We see you. Your movement is strong and powerful. We stand in solidarity we stand with you, we stand for you and we love you. Children of Attawapiskat your life is shining. Your light shines bright just by living."
Towards the end of the rally, an #OccupyINAC supporter climbed on top of small building just outside the INAC offices to tie the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations) flag to a flagpole flying the Canadian flag.
A few furious passersby ordered the supporters to remove the Six Nations flag, however, #OccupyINAC supporters refused.
In response to the angry passersby, Indigenous activist Clarissa Anton began singing the "Women's Warrior" song. Anton explained that #OccupyINAC supporters were not removing the Canadian flag nor directing disrespect towards the Canadian flag.
"I don't think there's any problem with having the Six Nations flag flying along the Canadian flag," said Anton. "I just let [the passersby] know that [they are] on unceded land and I welcome everybody to our territories but I just want them to respect our land."
"I really would stand up for these people [in Attawapiskat]," Anton continued. "It hurts my heart and I share their story. I feel really sad for the children who are going through hard times. My boy is nine years old and I couldn't imagine anybody living how they are living out there. I believe that INAC should be standing up to help these people in every way that they can."
Lenee Son is a freelance multimedia journalist living in metro Vancouver. Follow her on twitter: @leneeson