Indigenous Leaders Call for Meeting with Trudeau After Latest Youth Suicide

Four Indigenous girls between the ages of 10 and 14 took their lives earlier this month in northern Saskatchewan.

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Oct 21 2016, 4:51pm

Chief Tammy Cook-Searson of the Lac La Ronge poses for a photo near a Montreal river between La Ronge and Air Ronge. Photo by CP/Liam Richards

After four Indigenous girls committed suicide in northern Saskatchewan, the communities say it's time for a face-to-face with Justin Trudeau.

On Thursday, the Lac La Ronge Indian Band and the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in Saskatchewan declared a state of crisis following four separate suicides this month of girls between the ages of 10 and 14.

"Anytime we lose a youth to these circumstances it's a devastating environment to the parents, to the family members the communities, leadership, elders, the friends. It's absolutely devastating to all of them," Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) Chief Cameron told VICE, adding the state of crisis will allow the communities to "really monitor and really take control of things."

The FSIN has been in contact with the federal ministers of health and Indigenous affairs and has sent correspondents to the Prime Minister's Office and Justin Trudeau. However, Cameron said to really make lasting change for the young Indigenous people of Saskatchewan, it's time to have a conversation in person.

"We want face-to-face meetings with the prime minister and these ministers because they have a role in this. We have to come together," Cameron said. "Let's make some decisions. Let's make some long term decisions, as soon as possible, so we can start taking advantage and realize that there is lives at stake."

This week, a 10-year-old girl took her own life. The young girl from Deschambault Lake, a small community of under 1,200 people located in the lake country of northeastern Saskatchewan, was a member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, who have occupied the lands since time immemorial.

"We are in crisis mode. We are starting the process of dealing with this sudden tragedy," Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation Chief Peter Beatty said in a statement.

"In the interim, we are assisting the family and community in dealing with the death of one so young. In the long term, we need to develop a strategy that incorporates an inclusive and holistic approach to addressing these terrible tragedies."

About a three hour westward drive away, which isn't particularly long for the province, the Lac La Ronge Indian Band (LLRIB), was still mourning the deaths of three girls between the ages of 12 and 14. They all committed suicide within four days.

"We are committed to working together with others in developing a suicide and wellness strategy for our communities," LLRIB Chief Tammy Cook-Searson said in a statement. "We continue to pray for strength and guidance."

The deaths have shaken the Indigenous leadership in the province but suicides in the north are an ongoing issue. The leading causes of death in the region are injuries, cancers, and circulatory diseases but suicides make up 25 per cent of injury deaths—rates three times as high as in the rest of the province, according to a 2011 health indicators report. From 1998 to 2007, suicide was the leading cause of injury deaths in northern Saskatchewan, surpassing traffic collisions by nearly 10 per cent.

Cameron said it needs to be a national conversation, pointing to Attawapiskat First Nationin northern Ontario, the Pimicikamak Cree Nation in Manitoba and a report out of Albertawhich studied the suicides of seven Indigenous youth, between the ages of 14 and 18, over an 18-month period.

"What has to happen, there has to be an immediate discussion in projects, programs and initiatives that are geared towards the youth," he said. "They have to be culturally relevant to that specific community."

In March, Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde called for immediate action to address the suicide crisis after the Manitoba deaths.

"Lives are at stake. We need action now to ensure not one more life is lost or placed in danger and we need sustained, coordinated efforts to deal with the root causes," Bellegarde said at the time, calling for a national suicide strategy.

Between 2005 and 2007, the suicide rate among youth living in areas with a high First Nations population was 11 times higher for males and 21 times higher for females compared to youth in areas with a low First Nations population, according to the AFN.

The communities in northern Saskatchewan are coming together to change those numbers and let every young girl or boy know they are loved, Cameron said, but they need help.

Although a national suicide strategy has been dismissed by Health Minister Jane Philpott, Cameron said something needs to be done—now and in the long term—because the kids aren't just the future of Saskatchewan's north, they are the future of the country.

Follow Geraldine Malone on Twitter.

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