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Suicides of two 12-year-olds highlight need for federal action: grand chief

Action needed on indigenous suicide: chief

OTTAWA — The deaths of two 12-year-old girls from a remote First Nation in northern Ontario are further evidence of the need for a national suicide strategy to help protect children across Canada, a prominent indigenous leader says.

One of the girls was found dead Sunday and the second one Tuesday in Wapekeka First Nation, a tiny, isolated community of about 360 people some 600 kilometres due north of Thunder Bay.

The community is focused on ensuring there is enough support in place to stabilize the situation, said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, whose organization represents 49 First Nations communities in Ontario.

A number of young people that have been identified as high-risk were flown out of the community Wednesday, and there's reason to believe other youth may be at risk, Fiddler said in an interview.

"I did request the police to monitor the social media activity of these children and youth to try and detect if there is a pattern that is emerging in the community," he said.

"We need to try to find out what the underlying causes may be or the underlying reasons why youth want to hurt themselves and why they want to take their lives."

In December, Fiddler called an emergency meeting with three federal cabinet ministers and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde, where he made a direct link between suicide and the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse in indigenous communities.

Ontario NDP MP Charlie Angus, who represents the federal riding that encompasses Attawapiskat First Nation, said the federal government has stacks of internal documents that show First Nation kids aren't getting adequate mental health services.

Last month, Angus's office disclosed just such a government memo, one that suggested Ottawa is falling well short of its responsibility in that regard.

In extreme cases, the memo said, desperate parents are surrendering their children to child welfare agencies as the only way to ensure their kids get treatment for mental illnesses.

Where mental health services are available, "they are provided by para-professionals or generalists, even though in geographically similar off-reserve (locations), they would be provided by a professional with specialized training," the memo said.

Angus cited the example of Attawapiskat, another remote reserve where a series of suicides made headlines this past spring, as a situation he's seen all too often: the government responds to public pressure, but abandons the effort when the pressure is off.

 "I guess when I see the deaths of these young people, I ask myself, 'What is it going to take for this government to get serious about the lives of First Nation children?'" he wondered.

"These tragedies are completely unnecessary if we have the resources on the ground, so I am just appalled that we live in a country where some children just don't seem to be considered valuable or worth protecting."

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott and Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett issued a statement late Wednesday expressing sadness at the news of the Wapekeka deaths.

The government is working closely with First Nations partners as well as provincial and federal colleagues to ensure Wapekeka First Nation receives mental health supports required, the statement said.

A team of crisis workers is currently on the ground in Wapekeka, it added.

"We are committed to improving the health and well-being of First Nations on meaningful long-term trauma-informed solutions," the statement said. "Losing youth to suicide is too common and simply unacceptable."

Fiddler said a more comprehensive approach is required to save lives.

"We saw this in Attawapiskat in the springtime and we are seeing it again in Wapekeka this week — when a crisis happens, everyone gets together, which is good," he said.

"Rather than us jumping up when something like this happens, we need to do it in a more co-ordinated fashion all the time. Not just in times of crisis."

—Follow @kkirkup on Twitter

Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press