The ugly truth of Canada's First Nations teen suicide

  • February 19, 2010
{mosimage}Stretched thinner and thinner across Canada’s North, the church is losing touch with First Nations communities as First Nations communities lose touch with hope. Another wave of teen suicides in the James Bay region has left church leaders wondering how they can offer hope to young aboriginals when they have so little contact with them.

“It used to be that the churches had a real big involvement in the communities,” said Bishop Vincent Cadieux, bishop of the Moosonee and Hearst dioceses. “That’s less and less now.”

With seven young suicides this winter in Moose Factory, Ont., and surrounding communities alone, church leaders have been left trying to console families and pray for the affected communities. But with no programs to try to prevent more suicides.

The wave of suicides in mostly Anglican Moose Factory galvanized prayer for all the churches gathered at Week of Prayer for Christian Unity services in January.

The suicides in Moose Factory highlight a stubborn, enduring and ugly truth about First Nations communities. For as long as people have studied suicide in Canada, aboriginal suicide rates have been at least double the national rate — 24 of every 100,000 aboriginal Canadians die from suicide, compared with 11.6 per 100,000 Canadians generally.

Horribly, that statistic actually understates how bad the situation is. Adolescence and young adulthood is a vulnerable time for all populations, but a 2007 study by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation found that “A status Indian adolescent is five to six times more likely to die from suicide than the average Canadian adolescent.”

Of course the church still offers a message of hope. Hope is fundamental to the Christian message, said Cadieux.

But the message isn’t getting to the people.

“What doesn’t help in some ways is that we have less and less personnel,” said the missionary Oblate bishop in charge of two vast dioceses. “The church has less influence now, particularly on the young generation, because of all the backlash over the residential schools issue. It certainly has done a lot of damage to the credibility of the church.”

On the positive side, First Nations communities are building up their own capacity to deal with the crisis with their own schools, counselling services and health centres.

“In most of the cases people don’t refer so much to the church as they refer to their own organizations. They more and more have their own means of looking after things,” said Cadieux.

But new First Nations institutions don’t have any silver bullets. They are as heartsick and confused as the rest of the community.

“What is it saying?” asked Mary Kapashesit, director of service for Peyakoteno, the aboriginal children’s aid agency in Moosonee. “There’s got to be something going on here.”

Kapashesit complains of the same problem as Cadieux. She doesn’t have enough trained people who can run programs and work in counselling services to deal with the problem.

“We need more helpers. We need more workers,” she said. “I have only 10 child and family workers that work with families. When a crisis happens in a community they drop everything and they go to that. We don’t wait until we get a file referred. We just drop and go.”

Kapashesit has a proposal in to the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services seeking more frontline workers to confront the suicide crisis, but there’s no certainty that a government running a $24-billion deficit is going to find the money.

Counselling and social work are no substitute for a future young people can believe in.

“In these communities, well there’s no great future for people. There’s not much work and there’s no great future for people, especially the young generation,” said Cadieux.

Native communities on Manitoulin Island have had their problems with suicides, but they don’t face it in waves or as a constant crisis, said Fr. Doug McCarthy, pastor of Holy Cross parish in Wikwemikong, Ont.

“It hasn’t happened very often since I’ve been here (10 years). It’s been rare,” said the Jesuit.

That may be because there are jobs at a couple of different sand and gravel operations on Manitoulin Island, and good access to jobs off reserve in southern Ontario.

The reserves on the island are host to a vibrant cultural life and the art galleries spread across the island are also a source of employment.

But in many communities a cycle of despair takes over, said Ursuline missionary Sr. Bernadette Feist in Lebret, Sask.

“Drugs and alcohol are the basis of it all, or most of it,” Feist said. “It’s not just teenagers, you know. The drug traffickers are eight-year-olds — school bus kids.”

Spread between three reserves and constantly on the road, Feist said she would need a corps of committed people living and organizing in the community to have any real effect on young lives in the Qu’Appelle Valley.

“The territory is so cotton-picking big that you couldn’t even do a follow up on it — that’s the reality out there,” she said.

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