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An indigenous cemetery is shown in the northern Ontario First Nations reserve in Attawapiskat, Ont., on Tuesday, April 19, 2016. It is another first nation community in northern Ontario that has recently dealt with suicide. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
An indigenous cemetery is shown in the northern Ontario First Nations reserve in Attawapiskat, Ont., on Tuesday, April 19, 2016. It is another first nation community in northern Ontario that has recently dealt with suicide. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Wapekeka First Nation calls for federal funding, local solutions to address suicide crisis Add to ...

They have dismantled part of the outdoor rink on the Wapekeka First Nation.

While other Canadian kids go to their arenas to play hockey or chase each other around the ice, the children of the tiny fly-in community north of Thunder Bay look at their rink and think about the suicide of a friend.

On June 13, 12-year-old Jenera Roundsky hanged herself in one of the warming huts.

Her death followed that of two other girls the same age who killed themselves in January elsewhere on the reserve and set in motion a suicide watch of Wapekeka’s young people that continues to this day.

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“What we’re doing right now is just trying to stabilize the community, the youth and that is the short-term goal,” said Brennan Sainnawap, the chief of the First Nation of about 350 people. The remote village took care of one of its immediate needs by removing a portion of the rink that might have prompted other young people to consider ending their lives.

Children have been visiting the site since Jenera’s death and the community’s leaders were worried that they were doing so unsupervised.

First Nations leaders point out that many of their communities across Canada are searching for ways to stop young people from killing themselves.

The act is performed five to six times more often by First Nations youth than by other Canadian children.

They say broader strokes are necessary, including a change to the way the federal government delivers health-care funding to First Nations, so they can adequately respond to suicide crises when they hit. And they say the situation in Wapekeka proves their point.

The community went through a previous spate of 16 suicides between 1982 and 1999.

Those deaths abated after Wapekeka introduced a program of support largely centred around an annual conference that brought together hundreds of people to discuss prevention strategies and healing. That conference ran for two decades, but ended in 2014.

Two years later, it was discovered that six children living on the reserve had entered into a suicide pact – a number that eventually climbed to 10.

Wapekeka went to Health Canada in July of 2016 with a strategy for keeping the kids from carrying out their plan.

It involved bringing a four-person mental-health team into the community to take a “holistic approach” to suicide prevention that would involve the children, their families and extended family members.

The cost would have been $376,706. But Health Canada’s Ontario regional office did not have any extra resources at that time, a department official explained.

So no funds could immediately be provided.

Now, Wapekeka is once again in the middle of a crisis that has left the community mentally and physically exhausted.

Notes from conference calls that have taken place in recent weeks show that Mr. Sainnawap and other community members are desperately trying to ensure that the children who are most at risk are getting help.

They include the brother of one of the girls who died this year who subsequently tried to kill himself in the village playground, the 12-year-old boy who discovered Jenera’s body and a 15-year-old girl who came home from Sioux Lookout to attend Jenera’s funeral to find her own mother in the act of trying to hang herself.

The leaders of Wapekeka have called in the Canadian Rangers, a mobile force of army reservists who specialize in patrols, to watch for kids who might be sneaking off to a solitary place to end their lives.

But they are also working on a five-year plan that Mr. Sainnawap says will be rolled out in phases and involves training his people in suicide prevention.

Valerie Gideon, an assistant deputy minister at Health Canada, says the suicides of First Nations people have become a top priority of her department.

All First Nations have access every year to a suite of mental-health and addictions programs that have been in existence for decades, she said.

That money is provided through five-year agreements and the communities have much flexibility in terms of how it is spent, Ms. Gideon said. In Wapekeka’s case, it amounts to about $650,000 annually.

In addition, the money for the four councillors that Wapekeka had requested last July was eventually approved last winter, after the first two suicides, and has since been extended for two years.

So the community now receives more than $900,000 annually for mental-health and suicide prevention, Ms. Gideon said.

“And since the terrible tragedies last winter, in addition to all of the community-based funding,” she said, “we are also funding 24/7 counselling support on the ground in Wapekeka.”

But Isadore Day, the Ontario regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, said all of that federal money is still provided as line items on a budget and not through continuing block funding that can be accessed quickly by First Nations.

The fact that Wapekeka was denied its request for a suicide-prevention team at a time that the money was desperately needed, is proof that the current system does not work, Mr. Day said.

Rather than pay for individual mental-health programs that must continually be reapproved by Ottawa, give the money to a First Nations health authority that can act decisively and responsibly in a First Nation’s interest, he said

“That will allow us greater ability to be within the decision-making process,” Mr. Day said.

“It will cut the level of red tape, it will cut the level of cost expenditures going to a bureaucracy that knows nothing of our communities, and it will get the monies closer to the communities.”

Mike Kirlew, a doctor who has worked with the First Nations people of Northwestern Ontario for more than a decade, agrees that the Indigenous health system needs a funding overhaul.

“When they [Wapekeka’s leaders] detected that there could be a hint of a suicide pact or an increased rate of suicide, they developed a comprehensive plan that was community centred, that was based on community values, and it was not funded. And six months later, two girls lost their lives …” Dr. Kirlew said.

“Help us transform the system so we are not in crisis-response mode,” he said.

Back in Wapekeka, the suicide watch continues, but the chief is determined to get past the point of continual crisis response, past the time when the locations of suicides must be dismantled to stop copycats.

“Right now, we are just concentrating on the youth, to stabilize them. But we need the whole community to come on board – the parents, the elders, everybody,” Mr. Sainnawap said, because “eventually it is just going to be the community that is going to help themselves.”

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