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Toronto advocates want action on Indigenous youth suicide

Activists camped out at the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada office say they’ve had enough of empty promises.

Geoffery Daybutch is part of a group protesting in front of a government building to bring attention to the suicide crisis affecting First Nations youth.

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Geoffery Daybutch is part of a group protesting in front of a government building to bring attention to the suicide crisis affecting First Nations youth.

It’s been exactly 20 days since Carrie Lester had proper sleep.

That’s how long she’s stayed in a tent in front of the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada office, together with a handful of Indigenous activists. They stay up late, talking to any passersby about a suicide crisis facing Indigenous youth.

“I’m more than heartbroken every time a young person takes their life,” said Lester, a Toronto resident, mother of two and member of the Mohawk of the Six Nations of the Grand River.

As the world marked Indigenous People’s Day on Wednesday, Lester and other activists continued their indefinite vigil. Lester said eight young people have committed suicide in Pikangikum — a First Nations community near the Ontario-Manitoba border — since July. More than 20 youth have committed suicide this year in Nishnawbe Aski Nation in Northern Ontario, on the heels of last year’s crisis in Attawapiskat.

Lester said government officials have long known about the crisis but have done little to address it.

“The blood is on their hands,” she said.

Last month’s emergency meeting on the issue in Ottawa resulted in a promise for funding to train more mental-health workers for the most-affected communities, but Lester decried the government’s decision to meet and discuss the matter again in the fall.

“How many more children have to die while these officials enjoy their martinis on the beach on vacation?” she asked.

Geoffery Daybutch, an Anishnaabe activist who splits his time between Toronto and Indigenous reserves in Northern Ontario, said substandard living conditions are forcing these young people to take their lives.

“It’s extremely frustrating to live in a state of despair,” he said, noting extreme poverty, lack of clean water and lack of education make youth feel “as if they live in a third-world country.”

“We want a firm timeline so we can hold officials to account. They can’t just ignore these issues anymore.”

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Indigenous and Northern Affairs said they’re aware of the vigil and plan to meet with activists in the coming days.

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