Com­mit to sav­ing In­dige­nous lives

The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION - John Roe

Could this be the week Cana­di­ans fi­nally awaken to the enor­mity of the sui­cide cri­sis rav­aging the coun­try’s In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties and agree to stop it? Could this be the week the epi­demic of chil­dren killing them­selves in re­mote On­tario re­serves con­vinces us all to work to­gether to ease the suf­fer­ing and save lives?

There were promis­ing sig­nals on Mon­day from On­tario, fed­eral and In­dige­nous lead­ers that mean­ing­ful emer­gency mea­sures are be­ing taken to help North­ern On­tario’s Nish­nawbe Aski Na­tion, with its pop­u­la­tion of 45,000 spread out over 49 com­mu­ni­ties. Since the start of 2017, eight chil­dren be­tween the ages of 10 and 14 in ad­di­tion to at least 16 adults in this vast ter­ri­tory have died by sui­cide, most of­ten by hang­ing. Never be­fore have so many Nish­nawbe Aski Na­tion young­sters taken their own lives in such a short pe­riod. In one of the most heart­break­ing cases, two girls in their mid­teens died by sui­cide, one of them the older sis­ter of a 12-year-old who had killed her­self just days be­fore.

And all this in just one First Nations com­mu­nity. The cri­sis spans the coun­try.

Na­tion­wide, the sui­cide rate for In­dige­nous men is 126 per 100,000 — five times the rate for non-In­dige­nous males, while the rate for In­dige­nous women is 35 per 100,000, seven times the rate for non-In­dige­nous fe­males. Sui­cide is one of the lead­ing causes of death for First Nations, Métis and Inuit pop­u­la­tions. This is a na­tional scan­dal and it’s time to shout “enough.”

In such a sit­u­a­tion, Sun­day’s de­ci­sion by On­tario Health Min­is­ter Eric Hoskins to send 20 full-time men­tal health work­ers to one Nish­nawbe Aski Na­tion com­mu­nity — Pikangikum — was timely and ap­pro­pri­ate. The agree­ment Hoskins signed Mon­day in Ot­tawa with fed­eral Health Min­is­ter Jane Philpott and Nish­nawbe Aski Na­tion Grand Chief Alvin Fid­dler to trans­form the delivery of health care in the ter­ri­tory was more progress.

That kind of long-term think­ing is the only way to stop the dy­ing. But it’s only a start.

As­sign­ing more men­tal health work­ers — there will soon be no fewer than 29 to work with Pikangikum’s pop­u­la­tion of 2,800 — is nec­es­sary. But it is nec­es­sary the way dis­patch­ing mul­ti­ple fire de­part­ments to fight a rag­ing in­ferno is. Yes, ex­tin­guish the fire. But then en­sure the proper alarms and pre­cau­tions are in place so it doesn’t hap­pen again. Then re­pair and re­build.

Cana­di­ans should ad­mit the pro­vi­sion of health care, in­clud­ing men­tal health sup­port, on On­tario re­serves is in­ad­e­quate and in­equitable. That must change.

But Cana­di­ans must also re­al­ize health-care fund­ing is just one prob­lem fac­ing re­serves and that sub­stan­dard housing, un­safe water sup­plies and grind­ing poverty all feed the sui­cide cri­sis.

The last fac­tor de­serves spe­cial at­ten­tion. Peo­ple liv­ing on re­mote re­serves of­ten have poor ac­cess to good jobs and de­cent in­comes. Build­ing sus­tain­able economies must be a pri­or­ity. There are many In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties that have es­tab­lished vi­brant lo­cal economies. Their in­sights and in­volve­ment are ur­gently re­quired now.

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