Give federal health accord cash to First Nations, say chiefs

First Nations should get a direct injection of mental health money now if the provinces and federal government can't reach a deal, say chiefs.

Youth suicide concerns can't wait for governments to stop squabbling, they say

Thunderchild First Nation Chief Delbert Wapass (L) thinks if the provinces and the federal government can't sort out health funding, the attention should turn to helping First Nations. (David Shield/CBC)

The number of suicides among Indigenous youth requires urgent action, not more squabbling between the provincial and federal governments, say First Nations leaders who've grown frustrated by this month's national health accord talks.

If the provinces don't want the $11 billion the federal government is offering provinces for mental health and other needs, that money should go directly to First Nations, said Thunderchild First Nation Chief Delbert Wapass and others.

"I think the federal government should say, 'Well, province, if you're not interested, we're going to deal with First Nations. We're going to deal with Thunderchild First Nation," the Saskatchewan chief said.

"Let us be the model. Let us be the lead going forward. We think it's important. It's vital. It's serious."

Suicides weighing on communities

A recent string of suicides in northern Saskatchewan communities has drawn national attention. It's also been nearly one year since the mass shooting in La Loche, Sask.

FSIN vice-chief Heather Bear's daughter took her own life. (Radio-Canada)
Wapass said these and other tragedies are not relegated to the north. Thunderchild is located just 200 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, and they have little access to mental health and other supports. Another young person committed suicide there two weeks ago, he said.

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) vice-chief Heather Bear hails from Ochapowace First Nation in southern Saskatchewan. Her two best friends and own daughter, Tasheena, have killed themselves.

Bear buried the 19-year-old several years ago on Christmas Eve.

"The suicides are still happening. The funding is long overdue," she said.

"Just give it to us."

Have us at the table, says FSIN chief

FSIN chief Bobby Cameron agreed the mental health money is needed immediately.

More importantly, First Nations should be at the table negotiating the next health deal with the provincial and federal governments.

"It only makes sense. We're all in this fight together," he said.

Sakimay First Nation Chief Lynn Acoose of Saskatchewan said she's not optimistic.

"This is an enormous problem," Acoose said. "I'm not holding my breath."

Earlier this month, the provinces rejected a new health accord that included $11 million over 10 years for mental health, home care and innovation.

Some provinces such as New Brunswick relented and cut side deals. Saskatchewan and others remain opposed.