Smagnis says: There is no question that if the incidence of youth suicides happened on a per capita basis in main stream Canadian society at the same rate as in some of our communities, a national disaster would be declared and unlimited resources applied to deal with a solution. These words spoken in the article below touch me as they are spoken from the heart, “It should not come to the point where nine-year-olds are killing themselves for our voices to be heard.” and another, “Our society is broken – we are failing our future generations. This is unacceptable, and it is time for change”.
Indeed, it is time for change and it is up to us to make that change!
Suicide and self-harm is the leading cause of death for indigenous Canadians up to the age of 44. Selena Randhawa talks to young First Nations people about the shocking deprivation and deep despair that lie behind this epidemic
“… And I hope that we will not have to bury one more innocent child – the future of our communities and the future of our nation.”
Sheila North Wilson, grand chief and representative of more than 75,000 indigenous people living across northern Canada, was in Ottawa last February to discuss the many issues plaguing First Nations communities. The memory of the conference speech she made there is now etched on her mind.
“Throughout the speech, my phone wouldn’t stop buzzing,” she recalls. “I didn’t think much of it.” But what she read next brought her to the floor.
“The text said my cousin Gabe had died – he had committed suicide that morning. I just went numb. Here I was giving a speech about the detrimental impact suicide had on our communities – and in the cruellest irony, my cousin had taken his life that morning.”
This was not the first time suicide had impacted Wilson’s family. “Gabe was 33, had three kids and so much life to offer. The only way I could come to terms with it was to say to myself that at least he wasn’t a teenager.” Four years ago, Wilson’s teenage nephew also killed himself.
The suicide epidemic affecting First Nations communities across Canada has been a national crisis for decades, but it attracted international headlines after three indigenous communities were moved to declare a state of emergency in response to a series of deaths.
In the spring of 2016, Attawapiskat First Nation reserve in Ontario declared a state of emergency after 11 young people tried to commit suicide in one night – adding to the estimated 100 attempts made over 10 months among this community of 2,000 people.
Not long after, it was revealed that six people, including a 14-year-old girl, had killed themselves over a period of three months in the Pimicikamak Cree Nation community of northern Manitoba. In the aftermath, more than 150 youths in this remote community of 6,000 were put on suicide watch.
Then in June this year, another First Nations reserve in Ontario lost three 12-year-old girls who had reportedly agreed a suicide pact. This string of tragic events has seen media and government turn the spotlight on an issue too often ignored in Canada.
Across the country, suicide and self-inflicted injury is the leading cause of death for First Nations people below the age of 44. Studies show young indigenous males are 10 times more likely to kill themselves than their non-indigenous male counterparts, while young indigenous females are 21 times more likely than young non-indigenous females.
Katrina, 16, lives on a reserve in central British Columbia with her family. She recently confided to a counsellor that she had
Accounts of such prejudice are prevalent across the country. The government has been criticised for its lack of support and funding for First Nations communities, which total 1.4 million people – just under 4.3% of Canada’s population.
“We call that injustice,” says Roderick McCormick, an expert in indigenous health and suicide at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops BC. He suggests a complex web of severe poverty plus lack of education and basic necessities underpins the rise in suicides among indigenous youths.
“In terms of educational opportunities, healthcare and child welfare, the government is doing an injustice by not adequately funding our communities,” McCormick says. “When these remote reserves compare themselves to other communities across Canada, there is a huge gap that has become really evident.”
Recent research has found more than 100 reserves still lack housing, electricity or running water – with almost 90 of them being advised to boil their drinking water. Another study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that 60% of children on these reserves are living in poverty.
“The communities I represent are living in abject poverty,” Wilson says. “My people are the poorest in this country, and that’s not right.”
Health and educational services on First Nations reserves are also far below the national averages. “Secondary schools on reserves are about two grades behind urban schools,” Wilson says. “So when you tell young people to go to college, they are so behind in the curriculum they get overwhelmed. Youth are expected to succeed, but it is setting them up to fail.”
Experts say all of these factors are contributing to the lack of hope indigenous youths have about their futures – and that this creates a perfect breeding ground for mental health and addiction issues.
Green, who grew up on a First Nations reserve in central British Columbia, lost both her boyfriend and her brother to suicide as young adults. She believes there needs to be a shift in how the government handles mental health issues within indigenous communities. Instead of responding to crises after they have occurred, she says, funding needs to be allocated towards prevention.
“I have a client who has been through so much trauma,” Green explains. “All five of my client’s siblings committed suicide, leaving them as the only one left in their family. Yet I am expected to help them and so many others within a few hours and with little-to-no resources. That is not right. More needs to be done to prevent this from happening.”
Many regard the suicide epidemic as a symptom of a much bigger and deeper-rooted issue: Canada’s systemic, long-standing neglect of its indigenous people. This is encapsulated in the ongoing impact of the country’s residential school system, which saw more than 150,000 indigenous children taken from their homes in an attempt to forcibly assimilate them into Canadian society.
Amber, 23, whose grandmother was a survivor of the residential school system, recalls horrifying stories her grandmother would share with her of sexual and physical abuse. “She would tell me about the teachers who would come into her room in the middle of the night and take her away and rape her. She was only nine years old.”
Rife with neglect and abuse, at least 6,000 residential schoolchildren are documented to have died as a result of their school experiences. In 2008, the Canadian government finally acknowledged this system as a dark chapter in the country’s history – but the effects of the schools can still be felt among First Nations communities today.
Amber says the lack of affection and guidance her grandmother received as a child prevented her from being a good mother herself. “The only thing my grandma knew was abuse,” she says, “so that’s what she did to my mother.”
This cycle of abuse, combined with deplorable living conditions, often made Amber contemplate suicide herself. She says she first attempted suicide at the age of 12: “It’s just a reality we live with. It’s easier to end [your life] than to get help in most cases.”
Stacy Wormell-Street, director of operations at ASK Wellness Society (a non-profit helping indigenous communities struggling with addiction) agrees the impact of residential schools – the last of which closed its doors in 1996 – still permeates indigenous communities today.
“The deep-rooted trauma which Canada’s aboriginal people suffered through the assimilation of their culture by the Canadian government has been carried on through generations,” she says. “Today we continue to see a drastic and tragic rise in death by suicide within our aboriginal youth.”
According to Wormell-Street, many children are being lost into the child welfare system because mothers and fathers do not have the supports necessary to make good decisions. “Our society is broken,” she says. “We are failing our future generations – this is unacceptable and it is time for change.”
Katrina, who received help from counsellors and went through an outreach programme aimed at helping youth struggling with depression and anxiety, feels lucky to have been given another opportunity at life.
“I know so many kids who never got this kind of help – it’s sad,” she says. “I understand why [they kill themselves]. I felt ashamed of who I was. And I felt like I had nothing to live for.”
While the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has pledged to dedicate more resources and funding to grassroots organisations and programs, Wilson says much more must be done to combat the high rates of suicide.
“We need to empower our communities to be prosperous and independent, and the only way to do that is create programmes where we all benefit from the resources,” she says. “[Our young people] need stable housing and running water before they can make the most of any opportunity afforded to them.”
McCormick agrees: “Before we can address this crisis, we need to solve the underlying issues so other communities do not go through the same things. We are putting a Band-Aid over the symptoms, and not getting to the root causes of why this is happening.”
In the meantime, for Wilson and countless families like her’s, burying loved ones who die too young is set to remain a tragic part of life among Canada’s indigenous communities.
“When I was going through the grieving process for Gabe in Ottawa,” she recalls, “an elder who was with me said this is just typical of our communities. We are always in a constant state of crisis, so we are constantly grieving … It should not come to the point where nine-year-olds are killing themselves for our voices to be heard.”
- Some names in this article have been changed at the request of the interviewees