Bell Let's Talk about Indigenous mental health

The federal government has a fiduciary obligation to help Indigenous communities dealing with mental health crises. Should private charities have to step in to make up the difference?

Could pressure from charities force the government to live up to funding promises?

Tweet from Cindy Blackstock on January 26th, 2017 (Cindy Blackstock @cblackst)

On Jan. 25, otherwise known as Bell Let's Talk Day — a nationwide social media campaign to encourage breaking the stigma surrounding mental health and raising funds for mental health programming — an anonymous donor stepped in to donate $380,000 to the Wapekeka First Nation, where two 12-year-old girls had recently taken their own lives.

The fly-in community, 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., had asked for funding of a similar amount but was denied by Health Canada last summer, the department claiming the request came at "an awkward time" during the budget cycle.

The death of the two girls, Jolynn Winter and Chantel Fox, highlights what's been referred to as a suicide epidemic in remote First Nation communities across Canada. 

Tweet sent out on Bell Let's Talk day. (Sean Draxa @SeanDraxa)
First Nations youth are five to seven times more likely to die by suicide than non-Indigenous children. Many living on reserves face poverty, poor nutrition, lack of funding for basic infrastructure such as schools and clean drinking water management, all on top of the lasting effects of colonialism and the residential school system.

First Nations children are also disproportionately over-represented in the child welfare system.

Indigenous child welfare advocate Cindy Blackstock is still currently fighting the federal government for equitable funding for Indigenous child welfare on reserve. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found the government guilty of discriminating against First Nations children last year.

But these facts are not new, and the calls for funding from the government for First Nation communities to attempt to solve the crises aren't either. Despite an Inuit suicide prevention strategy, and the Liberal government making Indigenous suicide prevention a priority policy following the most recent party convention, federal politicians are still silent on using a whole day dedicated to breaking the stigma on mental health to openly communicate on First Nations issues. 
Tweet from Justin Trudeau on Bell Let's Talk day, January 25th, 2017. (Justin Trudeau @JustinTrudeau)

The money

And while millions of Canadians, and even American celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres, tweet and Facebook touching messages of hope and support for those suffering from mental illness, the underfunding of First Nations mental health from the government continues. NDP MP Charlie Angus has accused Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett of "lying" about dollars flowing to communities.

The groundbreaking Bell campaign has impacted millions of Canadians and raised millions of dollars — 2017 set a record. Bell recently announced $250,000 to support Nunavut suicide prevention efforts, and a Bell spokesperson says nearly $500,000 in grants will support Indigenous communities from this year's funds. But the campaign, largely based on tweets, texts and Facebook posts, fails to elaborate how the money will address some of Canada's most troubling issues.

Bennett said recently on CBC's The Current that ignoring the funding needs of the Wapekeka First Nation "was a mistake." However, it doesn't erase that the funding never came and that the issue of First Nations mental health continues to be left out from the national conversation — social media or otherwise. 

Saskatchewan spends nearly $5 billion on healthcare per year, receiving $1.2-billion from the federal government, but the province's health critic has noted their Mental Health Action Plan — which specifically partners with First Nations and Métis groups — has yet to see any movement.
Tweet from Jane Philpott on Bell Let's Talk day, January 25th, 2017. (Jane Philipott @JanePhilpott)

The Bell Let's Talk campaign has a chance to break ground in mental health and incorporate reconciliation into their campaign; the appetite exists for nuanced conversations on the issues facing Indigenous mental health. Nishawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler told CBC, "the public heard what was happening in Wapekeka, and they're telling us it's not acceptable and they want to help."

Should private corporations step in?

Using the Bell Let's Talk campaign to discuss many of the issues involved in First Nations mental health, including the effects of colonialism, residential schools and the Sixties Scoop can serve to destigmatize the lasting and intergenerational effects reflected in First Nation communities. Corporate pressure, like the anonymous donor to Wapekeka, could force the government to live up to their fiduciary obligation to Indigenous communities.

It shouldn't take the death of children, or private donors, for funding to come. Health Canada has confirmed to CBC it is now committed to on a multi-year basis, and even that should have been in place long ago.

As Blackstock has often said about equitable funding for child welfare, the kids can't wait.

Tweet from Cindy Blackstock on January 26th, 2017 (Cindy Blackstock @cblackst)

About the Author

Cameron Perrier is an associate producer with CBC in Toronto. Raised in the Prairies, he started with CBC as a Joan Donaldson scholar. Proud of his Métis ancestry from Quebec, Cameron aims to highlight Indigenous voices and perspectives.