Commit to saving Indigenous lives
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.