Niki Ashton sends plea to federal government following rash of suicides on Pimicikamak Cree Nation
'We can't afford to lose young leaders in our communities in the north and across the country,' Ashton says
Niki Ashton, member of Parliament for Churchill — Keewatinook Aski, is calling on the federal government to invest in First Nations youth following a rash of suicides on Manitoba's Pimicikamak Cree Nation.
"We do have a new government and we've heard, certainly, pronouncements and interest in working with First Nations youth but I think it's important that we be honest: We haven't seen commitments in terms of funding or investment," she said.
Four teenagers have died by suicide in three months in the remote community. The youngest victim was a girl who will be buried on Sunday, which would have been her 15th birthday. The oldest was 18.
Ashton says the deaths are not surprising because they took place in a community that desperately lacks resources for youth.
"I know from the many visits I've had there and the time I've spent there that young people in that community, but also in other northern communities, face a real lack of supports and recreational opportunities and that those kinds of situations lead to immense hopelessness," she said.
"Unfortunately … this has led to the worst possible tragedy, which is an epidemic of suicides."
The community needs a crisis centre, she said; a place young people can go to seek help immediately. It also needs centres where children and adolescents can go to have fun and engage with each other.
"We heard very clearly from a young leader from Cross Lake, Amber Muskego, who spoke very powerfully in saying there aren't activities for young people to do," she said.
"She called for a crisis centre and obviously a place where young people can get help right now but also in the longer term, to address the lack of recreational opportunity; the lack of youth drop-in centre; the lack of places where young people can go and come together in a healthy and positive way."
Essentially, she is calling for places that are common place in off-reserve communities across the country.
"But, unfortunately on-reserve that's not the case. I think we have to be very clear about the fact that this is connected to the lack of federal funding that First Nations face," Ashton said.
"We need investment in opportunities for young people to live healthier lives and to regain hope."
Ashton describes her role as "painful," and even "frustrating" because year after year, she said, she has observed needs going unmet. On Saturday, she called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to bring the state of remote communities in a new direction.
"As he's taken on the role of minister in charge of youth as well, there's perhaps no more urgent issue to deal with when it comes to young people in our country than the high rates of suicides that First Nations youth face," she said, noting the issue has been "well-known" for years.
"Given the prime minister's interest in supporting young people, I certainly hope he will take it upon himself to work with First Nations, work with First Nations youth and more importantly, allocate the funding that is necessary to create healthy opportunities for young people in terms of education, in terms of recreation and … in terms of restoring a sense of hope."
For Ashton, it's a familiar story of what could have been avoided.
"We can't afford to lose young leaders in our communities in the north and across the country when we could prevent every single one of those suicides," she said.