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Committee urges Canada to address indigenous suicide epidemic

Eight-year-old Shakira Koostachin plays on a swing in the northern Ontario First Nations reserve in Attawapiskat, Ont. File April 19, 2016. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

Urgent government action is needed to address the inadequate health care, poor housing, discrimination and other potential causes of a suicide epidemic among Canada’s indigenous, according to a new report.

The report was released Monday by Canada’s Indigenous Affairs Committee, which spent more than a year studying the problem of suicide among Canada’s first peoples.

Statistics from the Center for Suicide Prevention indicate that suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading causes of death for First Nations youth and adults up to 44 years of age. For First Nations male youth (age 15-24), the suicide rate is 126 per 100,000 compared to 24 per 100,000 for non-Aboriginal male youth. For females, the suicide rate is 35 per 100,000 compared to 5 per 100,000 for non-Aboriginal females.

The ongoing epidemic is driven by numerous long-term drivers, according to the report, including the intergenerational trauma of residential schools, forced relocations of communities and racism on the part of health-care workers, teachers and social-service agents.

Conservative MP Cathy McLeod, who is a member of the committee, told reporters that the testimony given by 100 witnesses was some of the most disturbing she has heard in her time in parliament.

“As a committee, we thought to do justice to all those very tragic stories,” she said, reported the Globe and Mail. “I only wish that we had some quick easy fixes but, clearly, there aren’t quick easy fixes.”

The committee did, however, propose 28 broad-ranging recommendations for the federal government. Among these are an overhaul of the delivery of child welfare, more investment in housing, better access to education, more employment opportunities, enhanced suicide prevention strategies and improved mental health services in indigenous communities.

The committee also calls for the Canadian government to fully implement what is known as Jordan’s Principle, which aims to ensure that indigenous children receive the same quality of health care as is provided to other children in Canada.

The report comes just a week after 12-year-old Jenera Roundsky of the Wapekeka First Nation in northwestern Ontario took her own life at the community’s outdoor hockey rink. The community said Roundsky had been part of a suicide pact along with two other young girls, who killed themselves in January.

Canada’s indigenous suicide crisis has been years in the making, stemming from a long history of poverty, chronic unemployment and generations of sexual, physical and psychological abuse. Starting in the 1880s, the Canadian government forced some 150,000 children to attend “residential schools” meant to strip them of their traditional cultures and assimilate them into mainstream society. In many of the schools, most of which were administered by Roman Catholic churches, students lived in substandard conditions and endured physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

Today, many of the country’s 1.4 million First Nations people live in dismal conditions, in isolated communities with dismal, crowded housing, lacking basic necessities like water and electricity. One study last year by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that for Canada’s children living on reserves, the average rate of child poverty has risen to 60 percent – more than three times that of their non-indigenous counterparts.

In response to a surge in suicides in Ontario last year, indigenous and public health experts called on federal and provincial governments to channel more funding into mental health resources for indigenous communities, but complained that one-time funding responses have yet to provide a long-term solution to the problem.


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at