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Politics Ottawa must act to address Indigenous suicide in Canada: committee

MaryAnn Mihychuk, chair of the House of Commons standing committee on Indigenous and Northern affairs, speaks in Ottawa on Monday regarding the committee’s report on Indigenous suicide.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A long history of misguided federal policies has fuelled repeated suicide crises in Canada's Indigenous communities and urgent government action is needed to address the root causes, which include inadequate health care, housing, infrastructure and economic development, says a unanimous report by politicians of all stripes.

The Indigenous Affairs committee, which spent more than a year studying the problem of suicide among Canada's first peoples and released its report on Monday, found that the intergenerational trauma of residential schools, forced relocations of communities and racism on the part of health-care workers, teachers and social-service agents all contributed to the problem.

The committee's 28 broad-ranging recommendations include calls for the federal government to dramatically overhaul the delivery of child welfare, and to fully implement what is known as Jordan's Principle, which says native children should receive the same quality of health care as is provided to other children in Canada.

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The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) found last year that the discriminatory policies of the Indigenous Affairs department have led to chronic underfunding of welfare on reserves and have allowed jurisdictional issues to interfere with the provision of adequate health services, including mental-health services.

"We need to send a message to Indigenous Canadians and especially to young Indigenous people that their lives have value, and to hold on to hope," said committee chair MaryAnn Mihychuk, a Liberal MP and a former cabinet minister in the Trudeau government.

"We recognize," Ms. Mihychuk said, "that they are losing hope because they have difficult lives and are suffering from intergenerational trauma as the result of decades of unjust policies, and that we must act together."

A study released last year by the First Nations Information Governance Centre found that between 2008 and 2010, 22 per cent of adult First Nations people in Canada contemplated suicide. That compared with 9 per cent of the general population. Suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading cause of death for First Nations people under the age of 45. And the suicide rate for First Nations male youth is five times the national average.

Conservative MP Cathy McLeod, who is a member of the committee, told reporters that the testimony given by the 100 witnesses was some of the most disturbing she has heard as an MP. "As a committee, we thought to do justice to all those very tragic stories," she said. "I only wish that we had some quick easy fixes but, clearly, there aren't quick easy fixes."

Last week, 12-year-old Jenera Roundsky of the Wapekeka First Nation in northwestern Ontario texted "goodbye" to a friend then took her own life at the community's outdoor hockey rink. She had been in the care of social services since two other girls from the same community killed themselves in January. Her father died by suicide in 2011.

The wide scope of the committee's recommendations reflects the complexity of mental-health issues and the fact that there is no single solution to the high rate of suicide in Indigenous communities, Ms. Mihychuk said.

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Among other things, the report calls for more investment in housing, better access to education including the establishment of a university in the North, more employment opportunities, enhanced suicide strategies and improved mental-health services in Indigenous communities. In most cases, it recommends that government provides funding to allow the Indigenous communities to meet their own needs and find their own solutions.

Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society who launched the CHRT case against the government, said the tribunal noted in January that First Nations youth in Ontario are denied mental-health services that are provided to all other children.

"In worldwide research, we know that inequity is linked to a much higher risk for suicide in two ways," Dr. Blackstock said. "One is that it creates a lot of hardship for youth so they are more likely to have suicidal ideation and die of suicide. And the second thing is that, for those kids who are feeling suicidal ideation, there's inequitable services to meet that need."

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