A special meeting on the suicide crisis in Northern Ontario First Nations will be held next week between Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott, the office of Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins and Indigenous leaders.
The meeting on July 24, expected to be held in Ottawa, will address giving Indigenous leaders faster control over health care levers and resources so they don’t have to deal with the bureaucracy when a crisis occurs, said Philpott in an interview on Monday.
The youth suicide epidemic gripping the 49 communities in Nishnawbe Aski Nation is among the “worst affected regions of the country,” said Philpott. NAN reports there have been 543 suicides, of all ages, in their territories since 1986. In 2017 alone, there have already been 22 suicides and of those, eight are between the ages of 10 to 15.
“It is indescribable how tragic it is, it seems like it is almost a daily occurrence to hear this terrible news,” said Philpott. “As you can imagine our department, as well as all leaders of local communities are pressed with this, on a daily basis, trying to get immediate urgent needs of these communities addressed and making sure we access crisis teams and mental health workers, even addressing practical needs of communities such as food and lodging for those who go in to assist.”
Philpott agreed there is a “very unfortunate spike recently” but that there is a “real opportunity to actually be able to change these (funding) structures sooner rather than later.”
“What we have been working on is making sure everyone knows it is an all out response, making sure the communities get what they need right now but then also addressing extremely unfortunate structures that are set up where communities have to come to me or my department when they need a boost in capacity and they are waiting to get a response from us,” Philpott said.
Philpott was in Wunnumin Lake First Nation and Eabametoong First Nation recently travelling with NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler. She met with leaders, including those from Wapekeka First Nation, which has struggled with a lack of funding for mental health support and a youth suicide pact between young girls.
Philpott said she knows the answers to help stop the epidemic must be found in the communities themselves. While there can be many issues surrounding suicide including the ongoing intergenerational trauma from the residential school experience in Canada and lack of mental health resources in communities, Philpott said what is new is that in some discussions, the topic of sexual abuse is now “openly talked” about. She said talking about it is an important first step to bring it out of the darkness. “This allows the girls in the room to hear the acknowledgement that this is a real part of the crisis,” she said.
Finding the right counsellors for boys and girls to talk to in the community is integral for everyone to get the help they need. “The counselling help and the healing needs to be not just for the victims but the perpetrators who were often victims themselves,” she said. Both Wunnumin and Wapekeka were communities were convicted pedophile and Anglican minister Ralph Rowe worked in.
As the health ministers and Indigenous leaders try to work towards solutions, news came that two more 16-year-old girls had died in Pikangikum, and, another youth from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation.
Hazel Pascal died early Saturday morning. Her 12-year-old sister Mikaia took her own life on the Canada Day long weekend.
And the family of 16-year-old Delphine Quill confirm she also took her own life in Pikangikum late Friday.
“We’re way past the point of a crisis,” said Fiddler.
“We need to move beyond crisis management and see some permanent structures put in place to help us address youth mental health,” Fiddler said.
Fiddler said at the July 24 meeting, he plans to call for the creation of a permanent, tri-partite secretariat charged with addressing the suicide crisis facing indigenous communities across Northwestern Ontario.
“We need to see some sort of permanent secretariat to address these issues, with input from the federal and provincial levels,” Fiddler said.
On Monday, July 10, Colin Roundhead, a high school student from the remote, fly-in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation, died by suicide in Thunder Bay. He was a student at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School who friends on Facebook said loved music and Johnny Cash.
KI, or Big Trout Lake, has been reeling with sadness.
On May 18, the body of 14-year-old Josiah Begg was found in the McIntyre River after he went missing on May 6. That was the same Saturday night that North Caribou Lake First Nation’s Tammy Keeash, 17, disappeared. Her body was found in shallow water on Sunday, May 7.
Monday, July 17 would have been Josiah’s 15th birthday.
The York Regional Police are now investigating the circumstances surrounding both Begg and Keeash’s deaths after Indigenous leaders demanded another police force be brought in to investigate the cases instead of the Thunder Bay Police Service. The Thunder Bay police is currently being investigated for “systemic racism” concerning how they handle all Indigenous death and disappearance cases.