'We don't want any more tears': First Nations urge Ottawa to boost mental health spending

First Nation leaders are urging the federal government to make a serious commitment in the federal budget to increasing mental health funding.

Demand for counselling services grew during the pandemic — especially for First Nation youth

Mental health issues in First Nations communities have been amplified by pandemic-imposed isolation, say community leaders. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

First Nation leaders are urging the federal government to make a serious commitment in the federal budget to increasing mental health funding.

The Assembly of First Nations is asking for $1.3 billion to improve mental health resources for on-reserve and off-reserve members.

Cedric Gray-Lehoux, co-chair of the Assembly of First Nations Youth Council and a member of Listuguj Mi'gmaq First Nation, said he wants to see sustained funding to help struggling young people during and after the pandemic.

"First Nations wellness is directly associated with their culture and our culture is directly associated to our community," Gray-Lehoux said.

"With these isolation mandates during the pandemic, of course, that sense of community is affected."

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller told a press conference in Ottawa on Friday that mental health resources now being provided to Indigenous communities are insufficient and need to be boosted.

"The mental health crisis in Indigenous communities, and indeed across Canada, is really the hidden pandemic," Miller said.

"I worry very much about the youth."

WATCH: Indigenous Services Minister calls the mental health crisis in Indigenous communities the 'hidden pandemic'

Bolstering mental health resources in Indigenous communities

3 years ago
Duration 0:28
Featured VideoIndigenous Services Minister Marc Miller acknowledges the need to improve mental health resources in First Nation, Inuit and Metis communities.

Miller said Indigenous Services Canada doesn't have the tools to measure the pandemic's impact on mental health but the department is trying to get a clear picture of the situation.

In Saskatchewan, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) is looking for $30 million over the next 10 years to help communities and tribal councils prevent suicides.

The suicide rate among First Nation people in Saskatchewan is four times higher than the rate for the non-Indigenous population, according to Statistics Canada.

Teens make up a quarter of all First Nation suicide victims in Saskatchewan, according to the FSIN's 2018 suicide prevention strategy; the rate among non-First Nation teens in the province is just six per cent.

'We don't want platitudes'

FSIN Vice Chief David Pratt said the government needs to develop a broader plan to address the social determinants of health in all First Nations — especially since the Indigenous population in Canada continues to grow faster than other demographics, according to the latest census data from Statistics Canada.

"What's your current plan? To build more jails? To create more social workers?" Pratt said.

Pratt said the fight for more mental health resources is a personal matter for him. His sister Doreen Fox and her granddaughter Leah Fox both died by suicide.

"It's something that's sad, but this is why the work is so important," he said. "We don't want platitudes. We don't want any more tears from federal officials or provincial counterparts. We want actual investments and true partnerships."

In 2019, the government gave FSIN $2.5 million to create a suicide prevention strategy.

Pratt said the FSIN needs more money to address the social determinants of health, including trauma and abuse.

In a statement to CBC News, Miller's office said it's investing $425 million per year in community-based mental wellness services for First Nations and Inuit communities across the country.

In response to COVID-19, the department announced $82.5 million in funding to help Indigenous communities implement physically distanced mental health and wellness supports, such as telephone and video counselling.

'Children should be filled with hopes and dreams'

"The current mental health needs of Indigenous communities are the result of social inequities and colonialist injustices that have spanned centuries," the statement said.

"We know there is more to do and will continue to work in partnership to advance Indigenous-led approaches to address the social determinants of health and ensure there is no gap in service during the COVID-19 pandemic, and beyond."

The department's Hope for Wellness Help Line, a online counselling service, received an average of 2,698 contacts each month in 2020, versus 1,321 per month in 2019, said Miller's office.

Recently, Pratt said, two 10-year-old First Nation children in Saskatchewan took their own lives. 

"We've got to get to the bottom of what causes a 10-year-old child to take their own life," Pratt said. "Those children should be filled with hopes and dreams."

Six-year-old Chenille Tomagatick visits a relative's grave at a cemetery in the northern Ontario First Nations reserve in Attawapiskat, Ont., on Tuesday, April 19, 2016. The James Bay community of 2,000 was under a state of emergency due to a spike in youth suicide attempts. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

In Manitoba, the southwestern community of Sioux Valley Dakota Nation is still under a state of emergency launched last October following a string of suicides.

Chief Jennifer Bone said the community of 1,500 on-reserve members lost nine people to suicide — and there were 22 suicide attempts in the past year alone.

"It doesn't just impact the immediate family of those who are impacted by the suicide," Bone said. "Everybody is affected"

Bone said she believes the grief in her community stems from the intergenerational trauma caused by the residential school experience, and by the loss of culture, language and traditions to colonization.

Northern Ontario nation saves lives with support line

In northern Ontario, the lockdowns brought on by the pandemic led the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) to create a tailored 24/7 toll-free mental health and addictions support line for its 49 communities on and off reserve. 

Within minutes of connecting, First Nation people in the region can access mental health counsellors and create treatment plans by text, phone or chat. Services are available in the region's three dialects — Cree, Oji-Cree and Ojibwe — at 1-844-NAN-HOPE (626-4673).

Mae Katt, the chair of NAN's COVID-19 task team, said she's been encouraged by the level of demand for the hotline. So far, she said, 350 clients ranging widely in age — from 10-year-olds up to elders — are receiving ongoing care.

"I really feel that if we didn't have this program, we would be looking at a lot of consequences at our community level," Katt said.

"We've been in a suicide crisis for many years. That didn't stop, but people are calling now so we're able to save the lives of the young people who are calling."

NAN received $2.3 million in federal funding starting last August to operate the service for one year. Katt said she wants to see the service continue.

Katt said most of the calls to the support line are about suicidal thoughts, substance use, anxiety and depression. 

"We are seeing an increase in anxiety symptoms," Katt said.

"I don't think we're unique in being able to feel the pressures of the pandemic, but at least we have a program to respond to those calls."

Need help?

If you or someone you know is suffering from mental health issues or suicidal thoughts, the Crisis Services Canada website is a resource. You can also call toll-free at 1-833-456-4566 or text 45645.

Indigenous Services Canada also has a toll-free help line available 24/7 at 1-855-242-3310. You can also connect to the online chat at hopeforwellness.ca.


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.