By Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press on January 24, 2024.
OTTAWA – First Nations leaders held an emergency meeting in Ottawa on Wednesday to discuss a mental health crisis they warn could get even worse without government help.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation says there has been an alarming spate of suicides and suicide attempts in the northern Ontario First Nations it represents.
That includes the suicides of a 12-year-old from Sachigo Lake First Nation and a 20-year-old in Deer Lake First Nation earlier this month.
And in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, nine people have died between December and January.
The group is also raising concerns about the recent unexplained deaths of 14-year-old Mackenzie (Nathan) Moonias and 21-year-old Jenna Ostberg in Thunder Bay, and how their deaths are being investigated.
“Our communities are exhausted – they’ve depleted the resources to support the youth,” the group’s Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said in an interview.
“That’s the scale of what we’re dealing with. “¦ It’s becoming too overwhelming, and we need help from Ontario and Canada to help support our communities.”
Fiddler said that more lives will be needlessly lost without meaningful collective action, adding his organization is aware of the existence of youth suicide pacts in some communities.
“If immediate help doesn’t come, we will lose more young people. We’ll have to attend more funerals and try to comfort grieving families.”
Fiddler asked a list of political leaders to come to the meeting.
Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu attended, along with Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree, Health Minister Mark Holland and Ya’ara Saks, the minister responsible for mental health and addictions.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford and provincial ministers were invited but didn’t attend due to scheduling conflicts.
Speaking during the meeting Wednesday, Neskantaga First Nation Chief Chris Moonias said northern First Nations are at a point of collapse with mental health and addiction issues.
Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Sylvia Koostachin-Metatawabin, whose community declared a state of emergency over completed and attempted suicides in 2016, said colonialism and bureaucracy are preventing people from accessing care. Cracks in the health-care system are causing people to die, she said.
Hajdu said the stories she heard from folks in the meeting were devastating, and there’s room for both the federal and provincial governments to do more to support communities.
She noted that besides mental health supports, community members are also highlighting overcrowding and a lack of clean drinking water as prominent issues, adding that they are in the best position to suggest solutions.
“It’s not going to be the government that knows exactly what to do,” said Hajdu.
“First Nations have to be in the driver’s seat of designing whatever intervention it looks like.”
Fiddler said he wants the federal and provincial governments to commit to working with his organization’s youth council so that community members can speak directly with politicians about what they’re dealing with, and propose solutions.
On Thursday, Hajdu made the promise that her government will fund a meeting for the youth council in Ottawa so its members can meet with ministers and potentially Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Fiddler also said he wants changes to how funding is being administered and delivered in a way that empowers communities to implement solutions of their own.
If something doesn’t happen soon, he said, “we will lose more youth – that’s the bottom line.”
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, support is available 24-7 by calling or texting 988, Canada’s national suicide prevention helpline.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 24, 2024.