The recent tragic situation in Attawapiskat, Ontario wherein a number of young children have committed or threatened suicide, has once again raised media and public awareness of the desolate living conditions that plague a number of Canada’s remote First Nations communities. But how many times do families and First Nation communities have to experience the horrendous grief of losing a young child? How many times do provincial and federal governments have to witness this despair before effective action is taken?
The myriad of social issues facing many First Nations communities isn’t a new phenomenon. Many concerns have existed since the arrival of Europeans in Canada in the 15th century and the subsequent signing of Treaties with the then King of England during the centuries to follow. Accountability for First Nations people and issues understandably migrated from the King of England to the federal government with the formation of Canada, and since then has been downloaded at least in part to the 10 provinces. But exactly who is responsible for what, where and when is unclear.
The push-pull between the provinces and the feds on these issues has always been resounding. I know on the First Nations policing front, they split the cost 52 (federal) and 48 (provincial) percent. Although it is seldom enough funding to begin with, if one side doesn’t come up with their full funding contribution, the other side often cuts back proportionately. This is not the fault of the current Prime Minister or Premiers, but has carried on through many successive governments of all political stripes, for many decades.
The living conditions in many of these isolated communities are third world at best. Running water is at a premium; and safe and comfortable housing is almost impossible to attain. There is nowhere to shop except for very basic items, nowhere to work and few to no recreational or sports facilities in which to play. Access to schools and hospitals is very limited. Various forms of addiction in remote First Nations communities are much higher per capita than in most other Canadian towns and cities.
Equally distressing is that in these remote communities – only accessed by airplane in the summer months and long, desolate ice roads in the winter, most social and many health services are non-existent. Local First Nations police and/or the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) become the ipso-facto "all things to all people" and much-needed services are not delivered. Although they often try, police are not mental-health professionals or counsellors. Most of the officers live elsewhere due to the lack of housing and general living conditions. As a result, they only spend their working days there and fly out for days off and holidays. They therefore don’t volunteer and coach in the communities like they do in the many larger northern Ontario communities where they keep their homes and families. Concurrent to all the above, young kids are killing themselves in remote communities out of a sense of complete hopelessness for their lives and future.
Sadly, this cycle of youth suicide hits First Nations communities similar to Attawapiskat more regularly than people could possibly imagine. When one child does it, it often kicks off a wave of copy-cat attempts, as other children are devastated over the loss of a sibling or friend; recognize the local attention that the victim has garnered; and/or see an escape route for their troubled lives. It’s a tragedy all around – for the children, their families and the police that have to deal with the devastation 24/7.
A rash of youth suicides plagued the Pikangikum First Nation near Red Lake Ontario in the early 2000’s, resulting in reports that Pikangikum then had the highest suicide rate in the world. Youth suicide still continues to be a concern there as well. I know OPP officers who spent considerable time in Pikangikum through that dark time and still struggle to talk about their experiences there without crying. If such tragedy occurred in a non-Aboriginal community in this country, it would be an international shame and undoubtedly a Public Inquiry would result.
Canada and the provinces must put their heads together, place their fear of “ownership” of First Nations issues aside and develop a sustainable strategy to do what is right to ensure these communities have the same supports and services as non-Aboriginal communities. All Canadian people deserve the same level of policing, health, education and social services – regardless of race, religion or heritage. As well, First Nations leaders and community members themselves need to take some ownership of many of the current social problems they face in my view, and not simply demand assistance from the various governments.
But the bottom line here is that Canada and the provinces cannot absolve themselves from their responsibility or fiduciary duty to support these troubled Canadians and save young lives. As fellow Canadians we cannot turn a blind eye to the quandary either. We must collectively push our elected leaders for positive change before more young lives are lost.