Awful legacy

The crisis in Attawapiskat has shaken Canadians from coast to coast. In fact, it led the news on BBC and the New York times. It is being described as what might be ‘a suicide contagion’. Eleven young people, children really, have been stopped from what appears to be a suicide pact. Suicides and attempted suicides are far too prevalent in First Nations communities.

Parliament on April 12 held an emergency debate. We were in session until midnight in a rare discussion—one with nearly no partisanship. It is clear that the suicide rate among indigenous Canadians is far higher than that in the general population. Despite $8.4 billion in the 2016 budget for First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities, there was no increase in mental health funding. Not for indigenous people; and not for the general population. In the pre-budget consultations, the Mental Health Commission had requested $40 million for a national suicide prevention strategy. It is clearly needed.

But as much as we need action across Canada, we need it even more desperately for indigenous communities.

The emergency debate in the House touched on many aspects of the crisis for indigenous youth. The Minister of Justice, the Hon Jody Wilson-Raybould spoke passionately about the impact of colonialism under the  Indian Act. NDP MP and member of the Cree Nation, Romeo Saganash, quoted Nelson Mandela on how reconciliation cannot happen without justice. He made the powerful point that reconciliation frees both the oppressed and the oppressor. It is my deep hope that our shared commitment to assist indigenous youth will lead to supporting Romeo’s private members bill to entrench in Canadian law the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

My own contribution to that debate included the following: ‘The systemic violence of the residential school system over 100 years is clearly part of the context in which these young people are struggling. I just wanted to have at least some opportunity tonight to reflect on the importance of the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. While we are talking about immediate steps to address a mental health crisis, a crisis of hopelessness in specific communities, we should not forget the searing violence that may have played, and I think likely played, a large role in making beautiful young people think of their future in muted greys, that they have lost the full spectrum of the rainbow of beauty that awaits them if they would just believe that they have a real future, being loved and embraced by all Canadians.’

Short-term help—mental health professionals in suicide prevention are urgently needed. But long-term solutions require a steady multi-generational focus on healing, through truth, justice and Reconciliation.