Thunder Bay

'Discrimination and prejudice' leads to suicides in Ontario's remote north, chief says

A parliamentary motion today calling on the government to immediately invest $155 million in Indigenous child welfare comes too late for 16 young people who died this year in the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, says Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum.

Liberal support of NDP motion to spend $155M on Indigenous child welfare too late for some parents

Sixteen young people died by suicide in the Nishnawbe Aski Nation this year, according to Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum. (Nishnawbe Aski Nation)

A parliamentary motion today calling on the government to immediately invest $155 million in Indigenous child welfare comes too late for 16 young people who died this year in the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, says Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum.

The NDP are calling on the government to comply with a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal that ruled in January that the federal government has consistently failed to provide services to First Nations children comparable to those offered by the provincial system.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said on Monday that the Liberals are prepared to support the motion during Tuesday's vote.

It's cold comfort to the families of 16 young people who have died by suicide this year in Ontario's remote First Nations, according to Achneepineskum, who represents the 49 communities of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation. Their combined population is approximately 45,000.

"Our children who live in these remote communities face discrimination and prejudice from the [government] policies that are in place," Achneepineskum said at a news conference held by the NDP on Monday. "Our children do not have the same services and resources when it comes to health, child welfare, education."

Achneepineskum said she would be attending the funeral for a young girl who died by suicide on Thursday.

"If this child had the mental health services that she was entitled to during the time she was in the child welfare system, would her family be burying her — I don't think so," she said.

Both the Liberals and the NDP agree the current child welfare system is broken but they are at odds in their approach to fixing it.

Last week, Bennett announced the appointment of Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux as a minister's special representative "to sit down with each of the provinces and the Yukon Territory, to be able to make those changes and the kinds of reforms we need.

"It is not acceptable that we, as the federal government pay the provinces and territories to deliver [child welfare services] and that kids aren't doing well," she said.

The NDP argue that the government already has all the information it needs to reform the system; that immediate investments are required to make the necessary changes; and that any reluctance to spend the money is flaunting the ruling of the human rights tribunal.

Spending more money on the welfare of Indigenous children is a solution the government has been aware of for decades, said Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.

The government needs to invest "more resources and energy into services for children in their homes," Blackstock read from a 1967 report during the news conference. "Homes in the Indian [sic] community should be helped to provide this service."

The burden of evidence in favour of increased spending weighs heavily on Achneepineskum.

"All of those reports, if they had been implemented, I don't think we would have 16 suicides this year," she said.

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