Indigenous people need resources 24/7 to cut suicide rates, committee recommends

Canada's Indigenous people need resources 24/7, as well as culturally appropriate programs and services that are community led and controlled as part of a suicide prevention plan to reverse "decades of unjust policies," a parliamentary committee recommends.

Parliamentary committee makes 28 recommendations after more than a year of consultations, research

Rebecca Hookimaw, a teen from Attawapiskat, lost her 13-year-old sister, Sheridan Hoomimaw, to suicide. A Canadian parliamentary committee examined the issue of Indigenous people taking their own lives and released its report Monday. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Canada's Indigenous people need resources round the clock, and culturally appropriate programs and services as part of a suicide prevention plan to reverse "decades of unjust policies," a parliamentary committee says — the latest of many federal government calls to action, with previous ones going unheeded.

The House of Commons standing committee on Indigenous and northern affairs made 28 recommendations in a report released Monday, which followed more than a year of research and public consultations. 

We need to send a message to Indigenous Canadians, and especially to young Indigenous people, that their lives have value, that they matter.- MaryAnn Mihychuk, Liberal MP

"We need to send a message to Indigenous Canadians, and especially to young Indigenous people, that their lives have value, that they matter, and to hold on to hope," said Liberal MP MaryAnn Mihychuk, chair of the committee.

"We recognize that they are losing hope because they have difficult lives and are suffering from intergenerational trauma as the result of decades of unjust policies, and that we must act together to restore hope.''

Suicide is a leading cause of death among Indigenous people, according to the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, which submitted a brief to the committee. Rates of death by suicide among First Nations people are two times higher than the national average, CAMH said, citing Statistics Canada data.

As part of its work, the committee heard from 99 witnesses, including over 50 indigenous youth representatives, First Nations, Inuit and Métis leaders, academics and health organizations.

MPs on the committee said the witnesses shared difficult personal stories of suicide.

Health Minister Jane Philpott, in her testimony, called the high rates of suicide in Indigenous communities a "public health crisis" that has its roots in "long-standing social inequity ... in colonialism, racism, assimilation, residential schools, intergenerational trauma, poverty and so many other issues."

Philpott said programs in Indigenous communities have been "under-resourced" for a long time — there hasn't been enough money to build new facilities and repair old ones, or to hire and train enough professionals.

'We need to send a message to Indigenous Canadians, and especially to young Indigenous people, that their lives have value,' MaryAnn Mihychuk, chair of the House standing committee on Indigenous and northern affairs, said in releasing a report Monday that examined the problem of suicides in Indigenous communities. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

She said the $270-million pledged in the 2016 budget to help with health facilities for First Nations was "only a drop in the bucket in terms of what the need is."

The report found that intergenerational trauma was one of the key factors in the prevalence of suicide and mental health issues in Indigenous communities, and a key theme of the recommendations was to give Indigenous people more control over their own destinies as a way to improve overall conditions in their communities. 

"Self-government and cultural continuity within Indigenous communities has been shown to be an important hedge against suicide," the report said.

The government is urged to review its land claims policy and help facilitate "the goal of self-determination." The report also made clear that all services, programs and policies must be culturally specific.

To address the suicide crisis, recommendations include:

  • Developing and funding Indigenous-specific youth suicide prevention strategies.
  • Ensuring resources are available after hours and on weekends when emergencies typically occur.
  • Ensuring mental health services are "trauma-informed" and provide "safe spaces for young people to disclose adverse childhood events."
  • Improving infrastructure for emergency responders to locate and reach individuals in distress.
  • Address mental health and substance abuse issues with increased investment in culturally appropriate infrastructure and programming.

'Colonial patterns'

But for all its careful consideration, the report doesn't break any new ground in the fractious relationship between the government and Canada's Indigenous peoples, said Cindy Blackstock. 

"Why does the government not do better — when it knows better — for Indigenous children?" said Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and a professor at Montreal's McGill University. "Government processes and policies are slow to change and ... thus it continues to replicate colonial patterns of thinking and behaving."

More than 20 years ago, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples reached much the same conclusions as the new report, as did the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 calls to action in 2015.

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, says the recommendations in the parliamentary committee report 'reiterate solutions that have been on the books for decades.' (Cindy Blackstock)

"In the vast majority of cases, the recommendations reiterate solutions that have been on the books for decades — particularly those directed at addressing inequities in public services for children/youth, such as education, child welfare and access to basics like proper housing and water," Blackstock told CBC News. 

Blackstock points to a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling in January 2016 that found the federal government discriminates against First Nation children on reserves by failing to provide the same level of child welfare services that exist elsewhere — something called Jordan's Principle. But as of last month, the tribunal has issued three non-compliance orders to the federal government.

Blackstock would like to see the government apply Jordan's Principle to all public services. 

"I wish I could be more optimistic, but when the government has failed to comply with legal orders it raises serious questions about the degree to which they will implement recommendations within their authority," Blackstock said. "Failure to act can, and likely will, have life and death consequences."