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'Can't wait for kids to receive this service': Call to improve mental health support for Indigenous children

The Chief of Serpent River First Nation is calling on the provincial and federal governments to improve mental health resources for Indigenous children living along the north shore of Lake Huron in northern Ontario.

Nogdawindamin Family and Community Services proposing to take over children mental health services

Indigenous children in Serpent River First Nation can wait up to two years to receive mental health support, according to Chief Elaine Johnston. (Paulius Brazauskas/Shutterstock)
Why are Indigenous children in the northeast waiting up to two years for mental health support? The Chief of Serpent River First Nation joined us from the Assembly of First Nations' annual meeting to discuss the need for improved services. 6:13
Indigenous children living in communities along the north shore of Lake Huron are waiting up to two years for mental health support, according to the Chief of the Serpent River First Nation in northern Ontario. 

"The children are the future of our communities, so we really need to tackle this issue," Elaine Johnston said. 

"I look at some of the trauma issues that we're dealing with in our communities and these are long-standing issues, and I think that we need those supports to be able to get out of this."

Youth from Sudbury to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., are dealing with anxiety, depression, physical cognitive delays, attention deficit disorder and autism, according to Johnston. She said there are also babies who have fetal alcohol syndrome and opioid addiction in the region.

Johnston is at the annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations in Regina this week calling for the Ontario and federal governments to improve children mental health resources, especially for youth in care.

This comes just as Nogdawindamin Family and Community Services, which serves 124 Indigenous children in care from Sudbury to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., prepares to meet with the provincial government on August 1 to propose taking over the delivery of mental health support from other agencies.

'Case of too little, too late'

"We've had to do that because we can't wait for kids to receive this service," executive director Kerry Francis said.

"We've been asking for children's mental health funding well over seven years ... finally, I think from our perspective we're quite optimistic."

Francis is asking for $2.8 million from the province to improve his organization's child care delivery model, which will have a focus on mental health for the first time.

Nogdawindamin took over child welfare responsibilities for seven First Nations along the north shore on April 1, including Batchewana, Garden River, Thessalon, Mississauga, Serpent River, Sagamok Anishnawbek and Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nations.
Serpent River First Nation Chief Elaine Johnston is calling for improvements to children mental health resources at the annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations this week. (Bryan Hendry/Supplied)

Ali Juma, the executive director of Algoma Family Services, said he fully understands Nogdawindamin's desire to create a more culturally specific and accessible level of service. His organization currently provides mental health support along the north shore.

"The truth of it is that access for our Indigenous peoples for our mainstream services has not been the greatest," Juma said.

"It may be a case of too little, too late for some of our Indigenous communities who for years have been trying to access services and not getting it to the degree to which they need."

Healing work a 'process' that requires more resources

Juma said his organization has experienced a 22 per cent increase in demand for services over the last five years, but its base funding has not increased. 

Mental health services need to be expanded and become more culturally sensitive to address trauma that stems from long-standing issues, including the residential school system, according to Johnston.

"I've heard the scenario, well, why don't First Nations just get over it as far as reconciliation and residential schools, but it's a process," Johnston said.

"It doesn't happen overnight. I can say that because I'm also a registered nurse. It takes time to do that healing work and so you need the resources to be able to help you go through that."

About the Author

Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a national reporter for CBC Saskatchewan on secondment from CBC Sudbury. She covers news from across the province for radio, TV and online. Connect with her on Twitter @CBCOlivia. Send story ideas to olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.