Manitoba·Point of View

Grieving family says government ignoring Indigenous suicide crisis

Shannon Perez's cousin just lost her son-in-law by suicide. Living with grief and tragedy is not new to Indigenous people, she says, and it's time to take action — starting with implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

'Are we waiting for another suicide pact ... before government does anything?'

Desirae, left, here with her mother, Patricia, died of a broken heart weeks after her partner died by suicide, her cousin writes. (Submitted by Shannon Perez)

I had no words of comfort to say to my cousin. 

I was only able to sit beside her in silence and witness her grief and sorrow, letting her talk and share as she was able.  

My cousin had just lost her son-in-law to suicide.  

She told us how he was a devoted father and kind partner to her daughter, and how she needs to be strong for her daughter and grandson. 

People stopped by to offer their condolences. A small fire in the backyard was kept going to offer solace to those grieving. Smudge and prayers were offered and candles lit in his memory.  

It was a stark contrast to the inside of the house. They had just celebrated her grandson's first birthday. Balloons and streamers were still hanging on the wall — mocking the family with evidence of how their joy was short lived.

Indigenous families impacted by suicide and trauma say political parties need to address the crisis in the 2019 federal election. (CBC)

A month later, the same cousin's daughter died — not by suicide but, I would say, a broken heart.

Another loss, another funeral, way too soon.

This act of arson was actually a glaring cry for help.- Shannon Perez

Living with grief and tragedy is not new to Indigenous people.

Soon after the funeral, God's Lake First Nation declared a state of emergency after four youth died by suicide. Throughout the summer, there were 22 attempts in that community.

First Nations youth are more than three times more likely to die by suicide than non-Indigenous youth in Canada.

I think back to 2016, when a tragic fire burned the only grocery store and the band office in Shamattawa First Nation. The community's infrastructure was left in ruins. The fire was allegedly set by kids in the community.

In my heart, I believe this act of arson was actually a glaring cry for help.

This CBC Manitoba 2016 article says Shamattawa First Nation in 2015 faced a suicide crisis a year before the fire.  

Attawapiskat First Nation in 2016 and Wapekeka First Nation in 2017 have shared in this experience.  

In other words, God's Lake First Nation is not alone. And it's been well documented. 

In June 2017, the federal government Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs released a report called Breaking Point: The Suicide Crisis in Indigenous Communities.

"When First Nations communities assume greater control over their economic, health, social, policing and educational services and have retained the use of Indigenous languages and related cultural infrastructure, they experience lower rates of suicide, overall," the executive summary says. 

Building upon this statement and to counter this epidemic, it would be logical to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Bill C-262 would have ensured that Canadian laws and policies would be in harmony with that declaration.

But in the summer of 2019, on National Indigenous Peoples Day, the Senate closed its session, thereby terminating the chance of Bill C-262 passing into law.

Are we waiting for another suicide pact or another tragic fire before the government (and by extension us, as its citizens) does anything more than reports?  

Literally, lives are at stake. Indigenous lives.- Shannon Perez

There have been so many inquiries, commissions and reports — the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples,  the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and again, the earlier mentioned report on suicide. 

That report has 28 recommendations. The very first?

"That the Government of Canada work in partnership with Indigenous communities to facilitate the goal of self-determination and ensure communities have adequate resources to exercise their jurisdiction."  

The second recommendation?

"That the Government of Canada recognize the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as foundational frameworks for Indigenous peoples to realize self-determination."

How is it that the government is not getting it? What is it going to take to act on all of these recommendations and advance them?  

Literally, lives are at stake. Indigenous lives.

We cannot keep doing whatever it is we are doing. It's not working.- Shannon Perez

How can this crisis be raised during the federal election? How can the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples be put back on the table? How can we get people to connect those dots? 

It is so hard for people to see that the tangible act of suicide is a hard-core symptom of Canada's continuing colonizing practices.

We cannot keep doing whatever it is we are doing – it's not working.

In the meantime, my cousin is back at home in her community after laying her daughter to rest.  

I saw a smile on her face in one of her social media posts.

However, I've learned that this smile can disappear as quickly as the senate can close its session.

If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, there is help out there. Contact the Manitoba Suicide Prevention and Support Line toll-free at 1-877-435-7170 (1-877-HELP170) or the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868, or text Kids Help Phone at 686868.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Shannon Perez lives in Winnipeg with her family and her extended family. She works with people to understand why reconciliation is important. She values time with her family and volunteers.