by Alicia McCutcheon
First part of a series
EDITOR’S NOTE: In light of the recent increase in youth suicides on First Nations communities on Manitoulin and the Whitefish River First Nation, The Expositor will be publishing an ongoing series on the issue of suicide titled Suicide Watch. This is the first part of a series.
BIRCH ISLAND—The Whitefish River First Nation (WRFN) and Wikwemikong communities are again reeling with the tragic loss of a young man, a 20-year-old artist, who, for reasons known only to him, felt that life was too hard to carry on and took his own life last Thursday evening.
The young man, originally from Wikwemikong, had been living with friends in Birch Island. He is the fourth suicide in the community since February of 2009 and Chief Franklin Paibomsai Shining Turtle has had enough and is breaking the culture of silence on the issue, pointing a direct finger at the federal government for, time and again, turning a blind eye to First Nations youth and their struggles.
Chief Shining Turtle noted the ‘Office of the Chief’s Coroner’s Death Review of the Youth Suicides at the Pikangikum First Nation’ and its 100 recommendations, many of which can also apply to any reserve in the province, including WRFN.
“Young Aboriginal people are left with a sense of not belonging to a community,” the chief told The Expositor during an interview the day after the most recent tragic event in his community. “Under the Conservative agenda, they don’t want a social community in the Nation,” identifying all of Canada’s First Nations communities as a national unit.
“This report is bang on—long overdue,” Chief Shining Turtle said, pointing to the thick coroner’s review on his desk. “Yesterday I was working on a community development proposal for this community to address the issue of suicides and then I hear about this young man. This is real. These are not games, not about politics, not about the machinery of government.”
“Indian Affairs is nowhere to be found on this issue, they say it’s not our problem and Health Canada?” he asked, his face turning stony. “They say ‘here are some trinkets and bells,’ you’ll be fine. It’s not working, clearly.”
He called on the federal government to “step up.”
“The citizens of this country need to hold the government responsible,” he added. “We’re not merely stakeholders in the country, we’re nations.”
Chief Shining Turtle said he sounded the alarm 16 months ago, asking the government for funding for community-developed programs regarding the spiritual, emotional mental and physical needs of his people. “We’re still waiting.”
“The government should be creating a national suicide prevention strategy, liaising with Aboriginal leaders,” he continued. “The minister (Chuck Strahl, Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada) has to come out and admit there is a problem. We’re sick of being told ‘do it our way, and if you don’t want to play ball, that’s your problem.’ We’re given a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem.”
The report aggrees with the chief, outlining recommendations on the role of the government, both federally and provincially, including the development of such a strategy as well as targeting funding for communities experiencing large numbers of child and adolescent suicides in partnership with Health Canada and the Local Health Integration Network (LHIN).
The province, the report continues, “should cultivate its strategic direction with respect to enhancing mental health and addiction services over the next 10 years to ensure that this includes the development of a provincial suicide prevention plan, and the reduction of suicides in children and youth.”
The review also suggests that the province develop “population-level mental health indicators so that future decisions on mental health strategies will be data driven.”
The exasperated chief said he has written countless letters to Minister Strahl and Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq and the prime minister.
“When we signed the treaties, we didn’t sign ‘kill us,’ Chief Shining Turtle said. “It all points back to one thing: the Europeans came and colonization happened. You can’t just apologize and say it’s over. This is multi-generational and if we don’t start dealing with this now it’s only going to get worse. We need to start with the people again. People made this nation great.”
The chief quoted from Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
“Indian Affairs has no vision,” he said of the ministry. “Racism, unemployment, high suicides—we blow off every index there is and yet we’re pushed aside. With the Kelowna Accord we had an opportunity, but the Conservatives blew it off. Why? Because it wasn’t their idea.”
“They know that their lifeline should be connected to the land and its resources, but nothing in the mainstream education system or the media helps them build this connection,” a youth forum report on suicide, quoted in the coroner’s review, states. “They wonder who they are and why they exist. Coupled with the physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse that has become intergenerational as a result of residential schools and loss of identity, it is not surprising that some young people decide it is easier to leave this world than live in it. Suicide comes to be a viable alternative when there seems to be no hope of finding help or relief from an unending cycle of poverty and abuse: social, racial, physical and sexual.”
Chief Shining Turtle worries that the 100-recommendation made in the Pikangikum report will be for naught, just like the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples report that’s been “left to gather dust on government shelves.”
He says the government blames the economy for a lack of funding, but says “we didn’t have any treaties with the US or Europe. Their horse fell through and we can’t help that.”
“There’s an arrogance about the government now,” he continued. “I have real economic issues in this community, but it’s all being brushed aside for the economic meltdown and fake lakes in Toronto.”
“Am I optimistic that things will come out better?” he asked with sadness in his eyes. “Not this morning I’m not.”
What underlines it all, he says, is a sense of belonging. “When you’re told over and over again that you don’t belong, it wears on you. I don’t want to see this continue. Harmony, healing and hope, that is our goal, but if you don’t have willing partners in the federal and provincial governments…”
“People need to wake up and say, ‘we’re the settlers here, let’s respect these people’,” Chief Shining Turtle added. “It hasn’t gone away, this ‘Indian problem.’ We’ve never said go away, you people, go back to Europe.”
“The changes to the ways in which Cree and Ojibwe people were educated in the residential schools created a large group of Aboriginal men and women who had neither the education, skills and experience to survive in the bush in a traditional way, nor sufficient education to obtain a job in mainstream, non-Aboriginal society,” an excerpt from DJ Auger’s ‘Indian Residential Schools in Ontario: Nishnawbe Aski Nation,’ reads. “This group of people got caught between two cultures. They often had a difficult time functioning in either culture, and became marginalized in both cultures. In addition, many of the people lost their pride and felt ashamed of who they were and what they had become. They had lost their identity. In an effort to cope with this situation, some individuals resorted to alcohol. And when alcohol was not available, they resorted to drugs and solvents to hide their shame and pain and also to forget their experiences.”
The chief spoke about his community’s protest and proposed highway blockade on the HST issue last year and why he chose to speak up. “Because I thought about the most marginalized people in this community and thought, ‘what are they up against’? I don’t like standing out on the road. I’m a happy, harmonious guy. But when you’ve read one too many of these (reports), you start to get a little edgy.”
“So what happened to this young guy?” he asked of the young man who took his life the night before. “What did he face?”
He grabbed a copy of the WRFN audit from his desk, holding it up. “We’re handcuffed to the 170-200 reports they (the government) has us do annually. We’re stuck doing reports to justify the government, not to justify the people, and we’ve bought into it. We’ve been strangled by bureaucracy, we’re at a standstill.”
“The reality is that we’re bleeding everywhere,” Chief Shining Turtle continued. “I’m expected to put on a brave face, so I do. Our children are being slaughtered by idiotic policy. We stand up and tell China how they should be treating their people when this is going on here.”
“Hope, opportunity and a level playing field, that’s what we want, but it’s not here,” he added. So who do you turn to? The chief coroner apparently.”
Next week, this ongoing feature will reflect the viewpoints of some Birch Island youths and also local services whose mandate it is to keep young people mentally and physically happy.