A “suicide pact” involving 30 youths arose in Vancouver’s inner city largely because native children are segregated by racially selective social programs, aboriginal support workers say.
Although the native-only programs are designed to be culturally sensitive, they have ended up creating “social service ghettos,” said Scott Clark, who works for an organization that supports native families in the urban core. Mr. Clark said news of the suicide pact first emerged on Facebook in September, triggering intervention by a special team involving police and government social workers, who swooped in to disrupt the group’s plans.
“A number of front-line workers heard the rumblings … and then the team came together and identified who those youth were and then brought 24 of them in for their own protection,” he said.
Mr. Clark said all of the children brought in were natives living in the Grandview Woodlands area, but he didn’t know any details about the others, or about how and when the pact was meant to have been concluded.
He said there have been five attempted suicides among youth since September in that community, but he didn’t know whether any of them had been members of the pact.
He also said that 12- and 13-year-old native children have been binge drinking in Grandview Woodlands, which abuts the Downtown Eastside, and several have been hospitalized because of alcohol overdoses.
Mr. Clark, executive director of the Aboriginal Life In Vancouver Enhancement Society, said it is clear there is a crisis involving native children in the community and in other neighbourhoods. He blames the problem on social-service agencies that aren’t co-ordinating efforts, and on government services that isolate children, by funnelling them into native-only programs.
“The government has instituted what is effectively an apartheid system,” Mr. Clark said. “Perhaps with good intentions, B.C. government ministries have funded parallel aboriginal systems and organizations for education, child and family services. … These types of programs have long been advocated to reflect cultural relevance for B.C.’s aboriginal peoples. However, what has evolved are systems where aboriginal people are pressured and often mandated to use aboriginal designated programs and organizations.”
Ernie Crey, an adviser to the Sto:lo Tribal Council, agreed. “The fault lines in this unworkable and collapsing model of community services has found expression in last summer’s suicide pact and many troubling incidents involving youth that have followed thereafter,” he said.
Ambrose Williams, an aboriginal youth leader with Mr. Clark’s organization, said he often hears from young people that they don’t like being pushed into programs that are for natives only. “We don’t like being separated into aboriginal organizations,” he said.
In a letter to Mr. Clark last week, Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux said she has asked staff from her ministry and the Vancouver Aboriginal Children and Family Services Society to review the September response to the suicide pact.
“We can learn valuable lessons in terms of early responses, including collaborative opportunities, that may have been missed,” she said, while praising government, health and police authorities for their prompt action.
B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, was not available for comment Tuesday. But earlier this month she released a report on youth at risk of suicide, which identified a lack of stable living arrangements, domestic violence, mental-health issues, substance abuse and romantic conflict as common factors in 89 youth suicide and self-harm incidents. Ms. Turpel-Lafond also noted “a significant over-representation of aboriginal children and youth,” with 58 per cent of the incidents involving natives.