Indigenous youth suicide death toll jumps by 3 cases as Toronto vigil grows, organizers say
Federal minister for Indigenous Affairs offers to meet with group as calls for action mount
Geoffrey Daybutch has been camping out in front of the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada office in midtown Toronto for just over two weeks and in that time, he says, not only has the size of the vigil grown — so too have the number of suicides among First Nations youth.
Having grown up close to the TransCanada highway, Daybutch considers himself one of the lucky ones.
But in the more northern communities he's spent time in, clean running water and access to affordable food and housing are luxuries that are simply out of reach. And that's something he feels is driving young Indigenous people to take desperate measures.
"It's pretty scary," said Daybutch. "The stats are rising …That's disturbing to see that while we're here trying to raise awareness."
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Sigrid Kneve is one of the protesters that Daybutch is helping to keep watch over as she's lived and slept on a sidewalk in the Yonge and St. Clair area for the last 19 days.
3 deaths since Monday, say organizers
Kneve and others say they had no choice but to come together in an effort to force action after a spate of suicides in Pikangikum First Nation, a remote community near the Ontario-Manitoba border. In July alone, five young people have taken their lives there, say the vigil organizers.
Since Monday alone, Kneve says she learned there had been three more.
"You just go into shock and you just cannot believe it, you're just sitting here and nothing is getting done I just feel helpless."
The Indigenous and Northern Affairs office told CBC Toronto that Minister Carolyn Bennett has offered to meet with members of the group to hear their concerns and first reached out about the possibility in late July.
Last month, Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins announced funding for 20 full-time mental health workers to go to the reserve, where some 380 people have sought counseling.
The province also announced what it calls a new Indigenous youth and community wellness secretariat to better coordinate efforts as it works alongside Indigenous and federal partners.
And federal Health Minister Jane Philpott has said Health Canada is working with other departments and provincial ministries to coordinate an immediate response.
Action can't come soon enough, say some
But for Carrie Lester, one of those behind the vigil in Toronto, that response can't come soon enough.
"As Parliament sits on their summer vacations, children are still taking their lives," she said Tuesday, adding that what Indigenous communities need now is a timeline of what they can expect and when they can expect it.
That timeline needs to include when communities under boil-water advisories will get water treatment plants, she says, along with when soaring food prices will be addressed and housing will be made available so that there aren't multiple families squeezing into a single home.
"When you don't have clean water to drink, to wash in, and you end up with sores all over your body, what does that do for one's psyche?"
In the time that Lester and Kneve have been demonstrating, she says she's found passersby beginning to pay attention.
'It should bring all of us to tears'
Christine Wekerle is one of those passersby, who says that as a child-abuse researcher, she's been aware of a crisis among Indigenous youth.
But it wasn't until she stopped and listened to what those at the vigil had to say that she felt the actual weight of the tragedy.
"I don't think it gets anymore real than coming here … and to learn that [three] kids killed themselves today," said Wekerele. "Those children, their voices are gon e… But their suicides should be a voice to all of us to alert and act.
"It should bring all of us to tears."
Lester and Kneve don't know how long the vigil will last but say they're prepared to stay until they see what they feel is real action.
"Things either are or they aren't," said Lester. "Hope isn't even in our language."
With files from Nick Boisvert and The Canadian Press