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Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler takes part in a press conference to address the First Nation suicide crisis in Ottawa on Jan. 19, 2016.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A private donor has stepped forward to provide a remote First Nations community in Northern Ontario with money for suicide prevention, money refused by Health Canada seven months before two adolescent girls took their lives, but which federal officials say the government had subsequently decided to pay.

The anonymous benefactor has committed $380,000 to reinstate Wapekeka's mental-health program for youth, and has already paid an initial instalment of $30,000, said Wapekeka Chief Brennan Sainnawap and Alvin Fiddler, Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, on Wednesday.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation includes Wapekeka, a community of about 500 people located 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.

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"The community is happy. They are relieved that they can proceed with developing and establishing a program that they had wanted back in July when they submitted a proposal [to Health Canada] to establish a mental-health team for the youth," Mr. Fiddler said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Sainnawap wrote to Health Canada last summer to say that there had been many suicide attempts by young people in Wapekeka over the previous year, and the community believed that some young girls had made a suicide pact. He asked Health Canada for $376,706 to pay for four counsellors to help address the suicide issue, as well as to combat an increase in the use of OxyContin and prescription drugs.

That request was not immediately approved, though the federal department did tell community members last fall that it would pursue funding opportunities.

Then tragedy struck Wapekeka. Jolynn Winter killed herself on Jan. 8, and Chantel Fox took her life two days later. Both girls were 12 years old, and their deaths prompted widespread media coverage.

Maryse Durette, a Health Canada spokeswoman, said Wednesday that Health Minister Jane Philpott ordered on Jan. 17 for the mental-health money to be paid to Wapekeka "without delay." The community is already receiving $676,216 for mental health through a variety of programs funded by the federal government.

"We are aware that an anonymous donor has offered to provide funding to the community," Ms. Durette said. "We recognize that many Canadians have been touched by the suicide and mental wellness issues facing Wapekeka First Nation."

Mr. Sainnawap said he and the other members of the community were "overwhelmed" by the generosity of the donor. The community has already begun to hire mental-health workers.

Wapekepa had a suicide-prevention program in the 1990s after 16 young people in the community killed themselves, a spate of deaths that remains one of the worst clusters of suicides in Canadian history. That program achieved some success, but funding gradually ran out. The community tried to keep it going with its own money, but that eventually became impossible.

The Globe and Mail reported Wednesday that the federal health department provided Dr. Philpott with a bleak assessment of First Nations health care in February of last year. That report said the government is failing in almost every respect to deliver adequate treatment and medical services to people living on reserves, including mental-wellness programs.

The document provided to Dr. Philpott said there is "limited or no federal mental-health services for First Nations children and youth other than services provided through the National Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy."

Video: Feds 'dragging their feet' on suicide crisis: indigenous leaders The Canadian Press
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