Lenny Carpenter is a member of Attawapiskat First Nation who was raised in the James Bay community of Moosonee, Ont. He is currently the program lead for Journalists for Human Rights's Indigenous Reporters Program
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau believes he is listening to indigenous Canadians.
After a meeting with a delegation of First Nations youth from Northern Ontario to discuss youth suicide on Monday, Mr. Trudeau announced a commitment of $70-million over three years to provide mental-wellness programs in indigenous communities.
Among the youth delegation was a young woman from Neskantaga First Nation. She had earlier told a forum of MPs that she could not move back to her home community due to health concerns with the First Nation's drinking water.
Neskantaga. That should sound familiar. As a former reporter and editor of Wawatay News – the news outlet for Northern Ontario's indigenous communities – I covered Neskantaga's suicide crisis when it first declared a state of emergency in 2013. That state of emergency has not been lifted and in April the community reported more incidents of suicide.
Since I began my journalistic career in 2005, I can't recall the number of times I covered such crises, or how often youth suicide was on the agenda at yet another conference or meeting.
Why are these young people killing themselves? The issue has been formally studied and discussed time and again.
An inquest in Wikwemikong was completed in the mid-1970s after a rash of seven suicides. In a six-month span, seven suicides and more than 75 attempts led to an inquest in Elsipogtog First Nation, completed in 1992. In 1995, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples released its special report on suicide. A coroner's inquest into the suicide death of 15-year-old Selena Sakanee from Neskantaga First Nation was done in 1999. Ontario's Office of the Chief Coroner released a report in 2011 that included 100 recommendations, after reviewing the suicides of 16 youth between the ages of 10 and 19 in Pikangikum First Nation from 2006 to 2008. And after an estimated 600 youth within Mushkegowuk Tribal Council's seven communities (Attawapiskat among them) attempted suicide between 2009 and 2011, the council released its own inquiry report earlier this year.
While the studies recommend that mental and health services and culture-related programs are needed, they often point to deeper socio-economic problems like infrastructure, housing and water as root causes.
This year alone, Neskantaga, Pimicikamak and now Attawapiskat have made headlines for youth suicide. All face similar infrastructural issues like lack of housing or perpetual boil-water advisories.
We have seen time and again how First Nations crises receive the spotlight, only to fade – the reports collecting dust on shelves, the young voices forgotten.
During my tenure at Wawatay, we had, for a number of years, a youth magazine called SEVEN that published content from First Nations youth. It was a way to make their voices heard.
Nowadays, I head a program with Journalists for Human Rights called the Indigenous Reporters Program. It's an initiative designed to train a network of indigenous journalists across the North – empowering them to tell their own stories, inform a public conversation on the systemic issues and what to do about them – before we get to this crisis point.
And we should not even have gotten here. When will Canada commit to making a healthy long-term structural investment in the root causes of this nationwide suicide epidemic?
How many more suicides will it take?
Prime Minister Trudeau pledged to begin a new "nation-to-nation" relationship with First Nations and to begin reconciliation.
His recent funding announcement is a band-aid solution at best.
"While we will continue to engage indigenous partners in finding long-term solutions to these pressing issues," he said in a statement, "we know that urgent action is needed – and it is needed now – to address the health and mental-wellness crises being faced by indigenous people."
The past reports and inquiries should have informed him of the solutions. And on Monday, the youth told him face-to-face what they need.
He heard them. But is he really listening?