Thunder Bay

Counselling, not canoe sheds needed for First Nations youth, mental health worker says

A powerful speech about suicide by a 20-year-old woman on Tuesday changed the agenda for a meeting of chiefs from northern Ontario.

4 young people died by suicide in January in the Nishnawbe Aski Nation

"We've got to show our youth that it's worth living," Valerie Ooshag, 20, of Eabametoong First Nation told a gathering of chiefs in Thunder Bay, Ont. on Tuesday. (Jody Porter/CBC)

A powerful speech about suicide by a 20-year-old woman from Eabametoong First Nation changed the agenda for a meeting of chiefs from northern Ontario in Thunder Bay on Tuesday.

Valerie Ooshag told the Nishnawbe Aski Nation winter chiefs assembly that they must listen to young people and find ways to get them the resources they need to curb the suicide epidemic.

Four young people have died by suicide this month in the 49 First Nations that stretch across Ontario's far north. The most recent involved a 21-year-old man from Deer Lake on the weekend. More than 500 people have died by suicide in the last 30 years in the area, which has a population of about 45,000 people.

"Our people are hurting," Ooshag told the chiefs. "We need to come together and have our youth involved, to let them tell you what they want, what they need to take care of themselves.

"Show them there's a light in life, that there are better ways to cope than taking your own life," she said. "We've got to show our youth that it's worth living."

Ooshag spoke passionately, without notes for about five minutes, after first asking chiefs for a moment of silence for the families who have lost loved ones to suicide and then telling them to put down their smart phones and listen.

Young people who attempt suicide are sent out of their First Nation for a few days and then return to the community that has few resources to help them, said Ooshag, who works as a mental health counsellor in Eabametoong. 

"We need more resources, or even just a safe place to go," she said, telling leaders they need to talk to youth, not just about them.

That safe place to go is a youth centre, not a canoe shed, Ooshag said, in reference to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's comment that First Nations youth are interested "in a place to store their canoes and paddles."

"That's just ridiculous, and I'm not sorry for saying that," she told CBC in an interview after her speech. "I just really think we need a safe place for them where we can offer counselling."

It's not the first time that suicide has been top-of-mind at a chiefs meeting in the region. Last year, the assembly began with prayers for the family of a 10-year-old from Bearskin Lake and a 13-year-old from Neskantaga who had recently died by suicide.

But Ooshag's words had a powerful effect on chiefs who immediately changed their agenda for an urgent discussion about suicide.

"I ask you all, all leaders, what are you going to do to help us, the youth?" she concluded.

The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde, is scheduled to attend the gathering of chiefs on Wednesday. The meeting wraps up on Thursday.