The Guardian

Wapekeka First Nation used to be a shining example amid Canada’s suicide crisis, but residents link the dismantling of a key program to new deaths

Charlie Angus, the member of parliament who represents the Wapekeka First Nation, said of a government funding denial: ‘If these were white kids ... people would be fired.’

Charlie Angus, the member of parliament who represents the Wapekeka First Nation, said of a government funding denial: ‘If these were white kids … people would be fired.’ Photograph: Nathan Denette/AP

For decades, Wapekeka First Nation was a shining example of a community that was managing to keep at bay the wave of suicides that has swept through so many of Canada’s indigenous communities.

But two years after funding cuts forced them to dismantle a pioneering suicide-prevention program, the deadly epidemic has again struck the remote northern Ontario community.

Two 12-year-old girls have taken their own lives in recent weeks and another four girls in this 430-person community have been flown out and placed on 24-hour suicide watch.

Another 26 students are considered high risk for suicide, with leaders expecting this number to grow in the coming days. “Our community is in crisis,” said Joshua Frogg, the spokesperson for Wapekeka First Nation. For many across Canada, the two girls who died – Jolynn Winter and Frogg’s niece, Chantel Fox – are nothing more than names, said Frogg. “For those of us that live in the community, those are our children. They are our future, they are our legacy.”

It’s a bitter turn of events for a community that was once a leader in suicide prevention. In the 1990s, the community – at the time reeling from more than a dozen suicides of its members over the span of a decade – developed the Survivors of Suicide program and began hosting an annual conference on the issue.

The program offered healing to a community that had been shattered by the legacy of residential schools, where 150,000 indigenous children were taken to forcibly integrate into Canadian society and were often subjected to systematic abuse.

The community had also been among those most affected by Ralph Rowe, a man described by one crown prosecutor as “likely one of the most prolific pedophiles this country has ever seen”.

In the 1970s and 80s, Rowe, an Anglican priest, pilot and Boy Scout leader, would regularly fly into remote First Nations communities and take young boys camping. He was eventually convicted of more than 50 counts of indecent assault against young boys. A 2015 documentary estimates that Rowe may have abused as many as 500 indigenous boys.

The community’s suicide-prevention program helped heal lingering scars of the past. But First Nations youth are still five to six times more likely to die by suicide than their non-indigenous counterparts.

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And in recent years, the federal government began whittling away at the program’s funding. “Twenty-two years we ran it,” said Frogg. “Until it drove us into a deficit. We couldn’t do it anymore.”

In July, the community again approached federal officials, detailing a spike in drug abuse and suicide attempts. Noting concerns about a potential suicide pact among young females, the community requested C$376,706 to hire and train four mental health workers.

The request was denied. On Thursday, First Nations leaders drew a direct link between the funding issues and the loss of two lives. “Our community plan was turned down by government and now two are dead,” said Frogg.

Speaking to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, a spokesperson from Health Canada said the government had received the proposal in September, at an “awkward” time of year when federal funding had already been allocated.

The comment offered a glimpse of the bureaucracy that has shaped the community’s efforts to address the deadly epidemic, said Frogg. “Awkward? It was awkward for us to bury two young children in the middle of the winter in -30, -40 degree weather,” he said. “It was awkward to break ground in permafrost so that we can bury these children. It’s time for Canada to wake up.”

Pointing to what he described as the systemic negligence of indigenous communities across Canada, Charlie Angus, the member of parliament who represents the Wapekeka First Nation, added: “It has to be said, if these were white kids and the government said: ‘Well, you know, it’s an awkward time to help those kids, that’s why they died,’ people would be fired,” he said.

“The government knew there was a risk in this community – they knew the risk was elevated, they were warned. What kind of country can watch these young people die without doing anything?”

On Thursday, Health Canada said funding had been identified to assist Wapekeka First Nation. Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Jane Philpott, Canada’s health minister, described the situation in Wapekeka as tragic and noted the government had invested C$300m in mental wellness across the country, with $24m destined for northern Ontario First Nations like Wapekeka.

The Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents First Nations in northern Ontario, pointed to the suicide crisis to renew its call for a government strategy to tackle suicide. Canada remains the only G8 country whose government has not put forward a national strategy to tackle suicide.

The question of addressing the suicide epidemic that has ravaged indigenous communities is even more relevant this year, as Canada gears up to celebrate its 150th birthday, said Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler. “We find it very difficult to envision our communities participating in those celebrations when our children are taking their lives by their own hand,” he added. “So we are asking for support – again – so that our children can celebrate with you.”