OTTAWA — Health Canada was aware of escalating fear that a suicide pact was taking shape in a remote northern Ontario First Nation, but said no to financial assistance, angry and frustrated indigenous leaders complained Thursday.
The community of Wapekeka First Nation made the federal government aware in July 2016 that some of their young people were struggling with mental health challenges, and asked for $376,706 to tackle the problem, the leaders told a news conference.
"There have been many suicide attempts by youth in the past year and it is believed that there is a suicide pact with a group of young females," the documents said.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler takes part in a press conference to address the First Nation suicide crisis at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Thursday. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
Community members are now mourning the loss of two 12-year-old girls — Jolynn Winter and Chantel Fox — and the school remains closed on the reserve, which is located about 600 kilometres due north of Thunder Bay.
"It was awkward for us to bury two young children in the middle of the winter," said community spokesperson Joshua Frogg.
"It was awkward to break ground in permafrost so that we can bury these children. It was awkward for our youth to cry at the funeral."
In a statement late Wednesday, Health Canada said it told community members last fall that it would pursue funding opportunities for Wapekeka. But that simply isn't good enough, said Frogg.
'Our community needs help'
"Our community needs help," he said. "My chief and council cannot function at 100 per cent capacity because they are preoccupied with the hurt, the pain, the ongoing crisis."
Some 26 local youth have been identified as high-risk, he added — four of whom have been flown out in order to ensure they have round-the-clock medical attention.
"This is just the beginning for us. After everybody goes home, we still have to deal with the aftermath all over again."
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, whose organization represents 49 communities in northern Ontario, pointed out the irony of expecting indigenous people to take part in Canada's 150th-anniversary celebrations at a time when children are taking their own lives.
"I heard a senior official from Health Canada say ... that when they received that proposal from Wapekeka it was a bad time, it was an awkward time for them to even consider approving that request," Fiddler said.
"I heard a senior official from Health Canada say ... that when they received that proposal from Wapekeka it was a bad time, it was an awkward time for them to even consider approving that request."
"When is it the right time? When is it the right time for this government to act and support our communities, especially our youth and our children?"
Fiddler said he is scheduled to sit down Thursday with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as well as Frogg and Mushkegowuk Council Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon.
"How many more families, friends and communities are going to go through this?" Solomon said.
"The system is handcuffing and discriminating against our people. The culture has to change ... Our front-line workers are burned out. Our communities are tired."