‘We can’t wait any longer’

The FSIN is de­vel­op­ing a sui­cide pre­ven­tion strat­egy to ad­dress a per­sis­tent cri­sis

Prince Albert Daily Herald - - FRONT PAGE - ARTHUR WHITE-CRUMMEY

The Fed­er­a­tion of Sov­er­eign In­dige­nous Na­tions is pre­par­ing to roll out a sui­cide pre­ven­tion strat­egy, in light of shock­ing statis­tics on the per­sis­tently high rate of sui­cide in First Na­tions com­mu­ni­ties.

The ini­tia­tive stems from a res­o­lu­tion at the FSIN spring as­sem­bly, and should be ready by May of next year. It was an­nounced Sun­day to mark World Sui­cide Pre­ven­tion Day.

The FSIN, which serves as an um­brella group for the prov­ince’s First Na­tions, brought on a sui­cide pre­ven­tion ad­viser to sur­vey the mag­ni­tude of the cri­sis. Draw­ing on coro­ner data since 2005, he found that the death rate by sui­cide for First Na­tions peo­ple in Saskatchewan is 4.3 times higher than for other eth­nic­i­ties. For women aged 10 to 19, it’s 26 times higher.

Vice Chief Heather Bear called the data “alarm­ing and dis­turb­ing.”

She said it shows the need for a “mul­ti­fac­eted” ap­proach, fo­cussing on men­tal health and dis­par­i­ties in hous­ing, so­cial and eco­nomic con­di­tions. For Bear, the FSIN’s ini­tia­tive is a re­sponse to what she called a “cri­sis-man­age­ment” ap­proach from the fed­eral govern­ment. She faulted Ottawa for al­legedly lack­ing a strat­egy, and said the FSIN is ready to fill the gap.

“We can’t wait any longer,” she said. “What the govern­ment has been do­ing isn’t work­ing. We know this just be­cause of the con­di­tions. We need to come up with a strat­egy, by our peo­ple, for our peo­ple.”

Bear ac­knowl­edged that the fed­eral govern­ment has pro­vided fund­ing for men­tal health ini­tia­tives, in­clud­ing re­cent com­mit­ments to ex­pand men­tal well­ness teams in Saskatchewan. But she said the fund­ing isn’t enough.

“Our youth are cry­ing out,” she said. “Our peo­ple have been through so much.”

She said the new strat­egy will of­fer so­lu­tions that First Na­tions across the prov­ince can im­ple­ment with their own re­sources. But to re­ally suc­ceed, she said it will re­quire ad­di­tional fund­ing from gov­ern­ments in Regina and Ottawa. She es­ti­mated that what’s needed could range in the tens or hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars.

Bear ex­plained that the FSIN has al­ready been in touch with the for­mer min­is­ters of abo­rig­i­nal af­fairs and health, Carolyn Ben­nett and Jane Philpott, to in­form them about the plan. She said they seemed sup­port­ive of the idea. In fact, the fed­eral govern­ment pro­vided $150,000 to sup­port work on the strat­egy.

In an of­fi­cial state­ment, Health Canada said that it’s pleased to pro­vide fund­ing on the strat­egy “to en­hance com­mu­nity ca­pac­ity.”

“Health Canada rec­og­nizes the scope and se­ri­ous­ness of the men­tal health is­sues that are fac­ing First Na­tions com­mu­ni­ties and is com­mit­ted to work­ing with all First Na­tions part­ners on men­tal well­ness ini­tia­tives,” the state­ment read.

“We will con­tinue to work in part­ner­ship with First Na­tions lead­er­ship and com­mu­ni­ties to en­sure that im­me­di­ate and sus­tained sup­port is avail­able when it is needed. To­gether we can in­crease com­mu­nity re­siliency and re­duce risk fac­tors as­so­ci­ated with youth sui­cide.”

But that doesn’t mean Health Canada is sim­ply ac­cept­ing the crit­i­cism Bear lev­elled against their work, or her claims that they’re strate­gi­cally adrift. Press of­fi­cer Maryse Durette said that the depart­ment prefers to part­ner with First Na­tions “on an in­di­vid­ual ba­sis.”

“All First Na­tions dif­fer,” she said. “It’s not that we’re drag­ging our feet, it’s just that we agreed with them that we do it that way.”

Bear laid out the steps that the FSIN will take to de­vise its new strat­egy. She said they have a men­tal health tech­ni­cal work­ing group that will craft rec­om­men­da­tions. They also plan to con­sult their youth as­sem­bly to learn “what the re­al­i­ties for them are.”

The plan will wind its way through the health com­mis­sion, and even­tu­ally come be­fore chiefs and as­sem­bly for fi­nal ap­proval.

She said it’s im­por­tant for First Na­tions peo­ple to de­velop their own plan. “It can’t be an­other pro­gram rammed down our throat,” she said. Af­ter all, they’re the ones most af­fected by a cri­sis that still touches so many – even Bear, who shared that her own daugh­ter lost her life to sui­cide.

The pain “doesn’t go away.” But the ex­pe­ri­ence taught Bear the value of the oral tra­di­tions of her el­ders, which helped her find ac­cep­tance and heal­ing. Cul­ture, she said, will un­doubt­edly be a ma­jor com­po­nent of what­ever strat­egy emerges next May.

“We know what’s best for our peo­ple,” she said. “Cul­ture, val­ues and be­liefs need to come back… once we prac­tice them, it does help you come up with so­lu­tions.”

“Our youth are cry­ing out.” Vice Chief Heather Bear

MICHELLE BERG/SASKA­TOON STARPHOENIX

Heather Bear, fourt vice chief of the Fed­er­a­tion of Sov­er­eign In­dige­nous Na­tions.

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