Act now on Indigenous youth suicide crisis

Posted on July 25, 2017 in Health Delivery System – Opinion/Editorials – On remote First Nations reserves, Indigenous children are taking their own lives in appalling numbers. Governments must step in to help.
Mon., July 24, 2017.   Editorial

Nothing is more endlessly heart-scalding in human existence than the loss of a child. When that loss is to suicide, the grief is compounded by bafflement, guilt and shame. When youth suicide occurs in waves, the trauma to families and communities surely passes all understanding.

There is a health crisis in Canada. On remote First Nations reserves, Indigenous children are taking their own lives in appalling numbers.

This week, on the eve of a meeting with federal Health Minister Jane Philpott and Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler to address the emergency, Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins announced some immediate help.

Hoskins said $1.6 million will be provided for 20 full-time mental health workers for Pikangikum First Nation, a community hit by the recent suicides of four children and in which hundreds of people have sought counseling in order to cope.

In the realm of Canada’s Indigenous affairs, almost all initiatives can be fairly described as too little too late. But in this case, Hoskins met a crisis with appropriate urgency, irrespective of political concerns.

“This can’t be an issue of jurisdiction,” he told news media after hearing directly from the chief in Pikangikum how grave the situation was.

Still, experts in Indigenous health – who believe the health-care system as currently constituted cannot produce sustainable service – will be looking for further concrete commitments to flow from Monday’s meeting in Ottawa.

First Nations people simply do not receive health care equal to that elsewhere in Canada, experts say. In particular, they lack access to mental-health services, support desperately needed to address the consequences of residential schools and the physical, sexual and substance abuse that has flowed from that experience.

As well, First Nations leaders say chronic poverty, inadequate housing and overcrowding, and inferior education on reserve have all contributed to pervasive despair among Indigenous youth.

In an opinion piece in the Star last week, Philpott said “it took generations of discrimination to create the circumstances behind these suicides.” And there is recurring evidence that the problems are both systemic and situational.

In January, Quebec Coroner Bernard Lefrancoise said Canada’s “apartheid system” of reserves was partly to blame for a string of suicides that devastated an Innu community in that province.

Also in January, leaders in Wapekeka First Nation about 450 kilometres north of Sioux Lookout, Ont., said their pleas to help a group of suicidal children last summer generated action only after two more pre-teens had died by suicide.

A Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled last year that the federal government discriminates against First Nations children on reserves. Even though needs are greater, Ottawa provides significantly less support to children on reserves – for which it is responsible – than provinces do for Indigenous children living off-reserve.

The ruling was particularly troubling given the adoption of Jordan’s Principle – a federal policy (based on a resolution passed unanimously in the Commons in 2007) that stipulates no Indigenous child should suffer denials, delays or disruptions in health services due to jurisdictional disputes.

It was named after Jordan River Anderson, a young boy from Norway House, Man., who died in a Winnipeg hospital in 2005 while federal and provincial governments argued over who would pay for his care.

It is easy to imagine that as Eric Hoskins dispatched support to Pikangikum he had Jordan Anderson in mind.

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