First Nations leaders tore into the federal government Thursday over its slow response to the high suicide rates in indigenous communities and repeated calls for a national suicide prevention strategy.
Their criticism comes after the suicides of two 12-year-old girls in a northern Ontario community earlier this month.
“What is it going to take to hear the cry for help?” Jonathan Solomon, Grand Chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, told reporters Thursday. “They are just dragging their feet while we continue to bury our loved ones.”
During an emotional press conference, indigenous leaders and advocates said Health Canada was aware last year of concerns about a suicide pact in Wapekeka First Nation — where Jolynn Winter and Chantel Fox took their own lives earlier this month — but failed to provide any financial aid. Wapekeka is a small community of about 400 people located roughly 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief, Alvin Fiddler, said Wapekeka had asked Health Canada for funding to help the community deal with mental health issues affecting young people, including concerns over a “suicide pact.” Fiddler said that funding was denied because it was an “awkward time” budget-wise for the health agency.
WATCH: Health Minister responds to criticism from First Nations leaders over youth suicides
Fiddler said Canada should meet its treaty obligations and support First Nations, especially as the country gets ready to celebrate its 150th birthday.
“It’s very difficult for us to envision our communities participating in those celebrations when our children are taking their lives by their own hand,” he said.
WATCH: Wapekeka First Nation look for answers to youth suicide problem. Shirlee Engel reports.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde and NDP MP Charlie Angus called for more funding for mental health services to stop a suicide crisis that is affecting First Nations communities across Canada.
“The government knew there was a risk in this community, they knew the risk was elevated, they were warned. And they said the budget was at an awkward time. An awkward time for who?” asked Angus, the NDP MP for the riding of Timmins-James Bay.
“If these were white kids in a provincial school system on a provincial medical system and a government said ‘well it was an awkward time to help those kids’ and that’s why they died, people would be fired.”
According to statistics from Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nations in northern Ontario, including Wapekeka, there were more than 500 suicides in those communities between 1986 and 2016. More than 70 of those deaths involved children between the ages of 10 and 14.
WATCH: Calls for action from Indigenous leaders after another northern suicide crisis in Canada. Jacqueline Wilson reports.
The crisis of youth suicides has affected communities across the country for years and recently made headlines after several youths took their own lives in Saskatchewan, Quebec and Attawapiskat in northern Ontario last year.
Mike Kirlew, who has worked as a family physician in Sioux Lookout and Wapekeka First Nation, slammed Ottawa over a lack of access to basic health and mental health services.
“The cost of our complacency will be paid for, in full, in the cost of children’s lives. Period,” Kirlew said.
Health Minister Jane Philpottt called the circumstances in Wapekeka and other First Nation communities “tragic.”
Health Canada said it told community leaders last fall that it would pursue funding opportunities in the future to assist Wapekeka in increasing the number of mental health workers in the community.
“This is not the only community that is suffering, where young people are struggling to be able to find hope,” Philpott said. “We are committed to working with out partners to be able to get new mental wellness teams, new crisis teams to respond to those needs.”
The community of Wapekeka said in a statement Wednesday it has been wrestling with the legacy of convicted pedophile Ralph Rowe — an Anglican priest who travelled to a number of First Nations communities and committed sex crimes in the 1970s and 1980s, leaving an estimated 500 victims in his wake.
— With a file from the Canadian Press