'Tragic' youth suicide numbers laid bare in new report from Alberta's child advocate

A new report by the watchdog for Alberta’s vulnerable youth is reporting the deaths of 35 young people who took their own lives in the five year period between 2012 and 2017.

More than 70 per cent of all youth who killed themselves were Indigenous, Del Graff says

Over a five-year period, Alberta Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff identified 35 suicide deaths of young people in the province. (CBC)

A new report by the watchdog for Alberta's vulnerable youth says more than 70 per cent of the 35 young people who took their own lives between 2012 and 2017 were Indigenous.

All of the 35 youth who died were either in government care, receiving intervention services, or had previous involvement with the child intervention system, Alberta Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff said in a report released Monday.

Twenty-five of the 35 young people who killed themselves were Indigenous.

"The most urgent issue raised in this report is the distressing overrepresentation of Indigenous children and youth in our child intervention system. We must do more to address this issue," Children's Services Minister Danielle Larivee said in a statement to CBC News. 

More than 200 deaths

Titled Five Years of Investigations April 1, 2012 - March 31, 2017, the report records a total of 216 deaths of children over that time period. It lists 53 accidental deaths and 70 attributed to medical reasons.

The 35 deaths attributed to suicide account for 16 per cent of all deaths reported.

Graff said he was "very sad" to report such numbers but not surprised, since he has previously called for action on youth suicide.

"I'm hoping for the public generally that it would be concerning. It's not something that's out there in somebody else's community. These tragic events are happening in our community."

Graff has raised the alarm about the Indigenous youth suicide crisis in several previous investigative reports including a special report in 2016 into the deaths of seven youth.

At the time he said action on the issue was "long overdue" and called for a provincewide suicide prevention strategy.

Several Alberta government ministries are working on that strategy. The government expects to have it in place by the end of 2018.

In his latest review, Graff refers to some of the children in his previous investigations.

He highlights that 71 per cent of the suicide victims were Indigenous.

"The impacts of intergenerational trauma and colonization continue to impact Indigenous young people and increase their risk for suicide," Graff says in the report.

Alberta government promises action

The high number of Indigenous children who died by suicide mirrors almost exactly the percentage of Indigenous children in care. Graff said Indigenous children make up close to 70 per cent of all children in care.

The Alberta government said the proportion of Indigenous young people in the report is the most pressing issue Graff presents.

Larivee said she will be working with Indigenous leaders, and fighting hard at a summit coming up in Ottawa later this month to push for action from all governments across Canada.

The Ottawa meeting, which has been called an emergency summit, will bring together provincial and federal ministers responsible for children's services and Indigenous leaders.

Report summarizes five years of work

He refers to a disproportionate exposure to suicide in Indigenous communities and again suggests culturally relevant activities to build young people's identities.

Graff's report provides summaries of the five years of work since his office was granted independence from the Alberta Legislature.

In 2012 he was given the authority to carry out investigations. Before then, his role was strictly focused on youth advocacy.

In his closing remarks, Graff writes that people who work in the child intervention system are doing good work, "most of which the public never hears about."

Nonetheless, he said it's critical those who work with children in care learn from the examples in his reports.

"We need to learn all that we can to prevent these types of tragic circumstances in the future."