Truth and Reconciliation Commission commissioners Marie Wilson and Chief Wilton Littlechild, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair Dec. 15 at the closing ceremony of the TRC. CCN photo/Deborah Gyapong

Stand and deliver

  • March 17, 2016

The real tragedy surrounding a suicide crisis that has devastated a remote Manitoba community is that it represents just the latest instalment in a Canadian saga that shows no sign of a final chapter.

After six suicides in three months and a staggering 140 more attempts or threats of suicide, the acting chief of Cross Lake, Man., declared a state of emergency and implored the provincial and federal governments to send help. According to reports, the First Nations community of 8,000, about 500 kilometres north of Winnipeg, is traumatized and beyond able to cope. Four of the dead are high-school students and another is a young mother. The community’s suicide watch list includes 100 children.

“There’s a tremendous amount of sadness and darkened spirits in our people and in our youth,” acting chief Shirley Robinson was quoted. “These people are too young to take their lives. We need to do something now.”

Sadly, that cry is all too familiar.

Speaking to The Catholic Register, Archbishop Murray Chatlain, whose Keewatin-Le Pas diocese includes Cross Lake, cited recent suicides in several of his First Nations communities. Native suicide is tragic but not new, he said. If anything, it’s become more common, with “an epidemic of suicides in so many of our communities.”

As often reported, suicide is the leading cause of death among First Nations youth and young adults, according to government statistics. Compared to the general population, suicide occurs five times more often among First Nations males and seven times more often among females. That disparity has been constant for decades despite various government commissions, programs and interventions.

Ottawa responded to the S.O.S. from Cross Lake by sending medical help and counsellors. Robinson says the community has also been heartened by support from church groups and others from across Canada. That is all good and hopefully these efforts will provide immediate comfort and help calm the crisis. But they will not resolve the greater issue.

There will continue to be tragedies like Cross Lake until First Nations and governments finally and with conviction address the deep-rooted cultural and social issues that fuel these epidemics of despair and death. The problem is rooted in 19th-century political decisions that, over the decades, were made worse by generations of unjust policies and wilful neglect. Sadly, there is no quick or inexpensive solution.

Last year the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued a report that proposed 94 steps Canadians can take to repair the relationship with aboriginal peoples. Justin Trudeau, then on the campaign trail, ambitiously pledged to implement all of them if elected. It was a big promise.

Now, with a budget coming on March 22, and in the wake of the Cross Lake tragedy, it’s time his government started to deliver.

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