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Youth suicide crisis demands sustained efforts: Kabatay

Tears are shed. The government pledges help. Then it’s business as usual until the next child dies and the process repeats.

While the on-the-ground help is great and needed for Pikangikum, what about the other communities still being affected by this, writes Jasmine Kabatay.

Jesse Winter / Torstar News Service Order this photo

While the on-the-ground help is great and needed for Pikangikum, what about the other communities still being affected by this, writes Jasmine Kabatay.

Different year, same crisis. Time for real change.

Last week, Pikangikum First Nation, a remote community 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, Ont., lost two 16-year-old girls to suicide. Two weeks before that, two other Indigenous youth, both 12, died.

Within one month, four young people have taken their lives. And Pikangikum isn’t the only place suffering.

Last month, Wapekeka First Nation in Ontario, lost another youth to suicide — the third such death this year.

It seems that every time a child takes their life in an Indigenous community, it is reported on, there’s an outcry, government officials say they’re saddened by the news and will send in more counsellors. But then it’s business as usual. Until the next child dies and the process repeats.

On Sunday Ontario’s health minister, Dr. Eric Hoskins, announced more mental health workers will be sent to Pikangikum at a cost of $1.6 million. The province is also launching an Indigenous youth and wellness secretariat. And on Monday Hoskins will meet with his federal counterpart and Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, who represents dozens of northern reserves, to sign a charter of principles targeting reform for Indigenous health care.

While the on-the-ground help is great and needed for Pikangikum, what about the other communities still being affected by this? In the larger scale, a charter of principles is not enough to prevent other deaths from happening across different reserves.

Six months before the recent suicide in Wapekeka, the community asked Health Canada for $380,000 in funding to help address youth mental health issues after concerns arose about young people entering a suicide pact. Health Canada denied the funding. Community members said they were told it was an “awkward” time for the federal agency’s budget.

What’s awkward is burying Indigenous youth because they didn’t get access to services that were desperately needed.

But where the government fails, Indigenous communities have stepped up, including crowdfunding to help handle the losses.

Nibinamik First Nation started a GoFundMe campaign last week after the community lost two youth within two weeks.

Earlier this month, a La Loche, Sask., woman started a GoFundMe campaign to take a group of young people to cultural camps in Bella Bella, B.C. — which has its own past with suicide.

Even back in Pikangikum, dozens of Indigenous youth have reached out to the grieving families in their community and rallied to do chores for them, such as cutting grass, cooking and delivering meals.

Many of the youth helping out said it was a healing experience for them, and doing this was a way to do something good for them and show them how supportive they are.

While Indigenous communities are doing the best they can to prevent suicides, more help is needed from the government. We can’t keep making GoFundMe pages.

Including Grand Chief Fiddler in Monday’s talks is a start. Let’s hope these pro-active efforts end the pattern of help, and tears, arriving too late.

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