John Rafferty on Aboriginal Youth Suicide


Parliament HillOTTAWA – Thunder Bay Rainy River MP John Rafferty spoke in the House of Commons on Tuesday on the issue of Aboriginal youth suicide. Here is the text of Rafferty’s speech:

It is with sadness that I rise today to speak on this issue. I come from a part of the country in northern Ontario where these sorts of headlines about suicide are in the paper almost every day. It is easy, I think, if one lives in a large centre to not have this issue as part of one’s daily life, but it is part of everyone’s daily life in regions like northern Ontario. However, it does not mean that people are not doing anything about it.

I would like to talk about some of the solutions that have come from northwestern Ontario. I will speak about aboriginal people, both on reserve and off reserve. I will begin with off reserve.

We have a unique situation in Thunder Bay in that we have a first nations high school. It is called Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School. It is a very interesting high school, and a perfect place to do an extensive survey as to what could be done to help solve this problem.

I would like to reference the Regional Multicultural Youth Council of Thunder Bay. Moffat Makuto is the youth adviser. We have been in touch for a number of years on this and other issues. We brought it to the attention to the minister in the last Parliament, but nothing has been done again. I have another letter from him today, and I would like to quote a couple of comments that he makes.

He talks about Reggie Bushie, a student who passed away in Thunder Bay and who went to Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School. He said there is a concern that the inquest is taking too long to begin, because two more students from northern reserves attending Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in the city have since died under similar circumstances. In fact, the media are characterizing them as mysterious circumstances.

This is a quote from Mr. Makuto’s letter to me. He says:

“We must work with aboriginal students and empower them to make a difference. But, our Youth Council lacks funding to create more peer leaders and role models at DFC. This is an effective way of connecting with aboriginal students to counter the aggressive criminal gang recruitment among school drop-outs across the region.

The Regional Multicultural Youth Council, in conjunction with the Multicultural Association of Northwestern Ontario, did a survey in March of this year. I do not want to go through the whole piece, but if anyone is interested in getting a copy, I would be more than happy to make sure they get one.

There are three recommendations for the federal government, and I would like to mention them briefly.

The first recommendation is:

“Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, Nishnawbe Aski Nation, the Ontario Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs, and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada should work with other government ministries and stakeholders to secure funding for a students’ residence at DFC, ensure that it is adequately staffed with essential programs, services and supports to guarantee their safety, enhance their well-being, improve their educational performance and increase graduation rates”.

The second recommendation is that:

“…the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, should provide financial resources to create, support and sustain aboriginal peer leaders at DFC who can work with other students to organize activities that reduce risk factors, enhance their safety, improve graduation rates, counter negative lifestyles, and avoid involvement in criminal youth gangs”.

Keep in mind that this is from students in their own words.

The third recommendation calls on the government to provide adequate funding for students to meet realistic costs and cover the needs of on-reserve and boarding students, addressing this inequity to match the provincial level of funding per student.

We know that for students at this particular high school, the aboriginal student gets about $2,000 less than what the equivalent student gets in the Province of Ontario.

I would like to thank the Regional Multicultural Youth Council and Moffat Makuto for their work on this.

I will briefly speak about Pikangikum in the time I have left.

Suicide is an invisible problem in Canada and it is an invisible epidemic among first nations youth. We have known for years that it is our collective failing that we, as political leaders, have not addressed this. It will continue to be our collective failing if we do not address it now, and I thank my friend from Toronto Centre for bringing this motion forward today.

The public safety of first nations youth on and off reserves must be a priority of the federal government. Suicide, particularly suicide among first nations youth, is not a partisan issue but a national crisis.

I asked a question in question period on September 23, about a week and a half ago, which I would like to read again. I stated:

Mr. Speaker, my constituents in Thunder Bay are agonizing over the unexplained deaths of seven first nations students in seven years. One week ago, on Pikangikum First Nation a sixth young man this summer took his own life.

Then I asked the minister if he had read the Ontario chief coroner’s report on these suicides, when he would act on its recommendations, and what he is doing to make life safer and brighter for first nations youth on and off reserves.

He stated in part in his response, “We will do everything we can to address the situation”. I thank the minister for his answer, but I would like to provide a bit of a historical perspective to what has happened in Pikangikum in the past and what is continuing to happen.

A November 1999 report co-authored by Samson for Survival International, a U.K.-based watchdog, called for immediate Government of Canada action after it found the Innu suicide rate to be 178 per 100,000 people from the 1970s to the 1990s. It is the highest-documented rate in the world.

Then we have Pikangikum, a community of a couple of thousand people in the far north of Ontario, 300 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. It has an eight-year average of 213 suicides per 100,000 people, a nine-year average of 205 per 100,000 people, and the latest Pikangikum suicides have sent this year’s rate soaring to 470 deaths per 100,000 people.

The problem, while it is worst in Pikangikum, is region-wide and countrywide.

The report in 2000 also said that the increase in female suicide is related to third world conditions now prevalent on Canadian reserves like Pikangikum. Grand Chief Stan Beardy of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation said in the year 2000, “In all my dealings with the Canadian government over the last seven years, I’ve been met with a stony silence”. Mr. Speaker, I would put it to you that he is still being met by a stony silence.

It is important to remind people of our history. This motion is a statement and a step that should have come from the federal government. It is still a step forward today, but only if we act on it.

In the time remaining, let me talk about some of the recommendations from the report.

First, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Affairs should fulfill its commitment to build a new school in Pikangikum as soon as possible.

Second, the government should be a stakeholder in the housing strategic study.

Third, the government and the Pikangikum Housing Authority should ensure that all homes built in the future are connected to water and indoor plumbing, something the rest of us take for granted.

Fourth, the government and Pikangikum First Nation should complete its earlier project to connect the first nation to the hydro grid.

Fifth, the Government of Canada should support the Pikangikum First Nation’s Whitefeather Forest project.

Sixth, Pikangikum First Nation should develop a community healing treatment centre with funding from the Health Canada Inuit and first nations health branch.

The seventh is the last one I will talk about, although there are more. It is that the Pikangikum health authority should develop a comprehensive mental health and addictions program for children, youth and adults.

John Rafferty MP
Thunder Bay Rainy River

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