POLITICS
12/04/2019 14:12 EST

Assembly Of First Nations Call For National Focus On Indigenous Youth Suicide Crisis

“We know that too many of our young ones are taking their lives."

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS
National Chief Perry Bellegarde speaks to the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa on Dec. 3, 2019. 

OTTAWA — The federal government will support the creation of a national suicide-prevention strategy for young people, with a suicide crisis gripping a First Nation in northern Saskatchewan, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller told a gathering of First Nations chiefs in Ottawa Tuesday.

Miller was short on details on what this strategy would look like, saying only that the government would work with First Nations communities on solutions they propose.

On Tuesday, a special gathering of chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations from across Canada began with a call for the federal government to step in.

National Chief Perry Bellegarde said action must be taken to stop Indigenous children and teens from feeling so hopeless they harm themselves.

“We know that too many of our young ones are taking their lives. And so we say to those young people that you’re special, you are gifted and you’re loved. Never forget that,” Bellegarde said.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Perry Bellegarde addresses the Special Chiefs Assembly in Ottawa, on Dec. 3, 2019. 

“We want to commit to making changes for our young people. Because, as leaders, I don’t believe we’re just here to look pretty. I want to get stuff done. I want to tell you the hard, cold truth that’s happening in our communities,” she said, as a number of chiefs surrounded her in support.

“Our communities, our homelands, are facing something that’s very dark.”

Miller said he has heard a proposals from different First Nations and Inuit organizations to help curb this distressing trend. He says his department will work with them to support a distinctions-based approach to developing a strategy — one that recognizes that different communities need different measures.

“The federal government will be there to support you,” Miller said.

Bellegarde also called for more aggressive action on climate change as a way to offer more hope to young people.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller during a session at the AFN Special Chiefs Assembly in Ottawa on Dec. 3, 2019.

Despite almost daily scientific reports being released painting a dire picture for the future of the planet if greenhouse-gas emissions continue to increase, Bellegarde said he believes there is a reason to hope for a positive outcome if governments are willing to work with First Nations on real climate action.

“The time is now for bold vision and decisive action,” Bellegarde said.

“Their future is in all of our hands and they (youth) are telling us we all need to do better.”

The meeting marked the first time Miller has publicly addressed the AFN since being tapped as the new minister of Indigenous services. He began with a long passage in Mohawk, which drew applause from the chiefs.

He acknowledged the federal government has “decades and decades of wrongs to right,” but also noted that the new minority government will be working with Indigenous peoples “in a different, more difficult context.”

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Marc Miller speaks at the AFN Special Chiefs Assembly in Ottawa on Dec. 3, 2019.

Miller made a special note in his speech to talk about the recent ruling by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordering Ottawa to pay $40,000 to each First Nations child who was inappropriately taken away from his or her parents after 2006, as well as to their parents and grandparents.

Ottawa is appealing the ruling, arguing in Federal Court last week the ruling erred in law, while Liberal politicians say they want to negotiate a better, more comprehensive settlement for victims.

Miller said Tuesday government does not question that children harmed by past child-welfare policies deserve compensation.

“We’re committed to working constructively, quickly and effectively with the parties to reach a comprehensive settlement that will benefit First Nations children and families. To do this, we’re going to sit down at the table with partners and work it out.”

Several other Liberal cabinet ministers are to address the assembly on Wednesday, including Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, Justice Minister David Lametti and Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 3, 2019.