Ontario MPP Sol Mamakwa has an analogy for how governments support a community when an Indigenous child or teenager takes their own life.
“It’s almost like they’re floating down the river, in a suicide crisis. You pull them out of the river, get them on shore, dry them up and work with them for a while. And then throw them back in the river,” Mamakwa told HuffPost Canada in an interview. “That’s the way the system is.”
There’s a better way, the NDP MPP for Kiiwetinoong says, but it needs to be holistic and long-term.
“One of the things that has been working for the community is land-based healing and traditional teachings. I grew up in a community where we did a lot of hunting, fishing, harvesting, trapping and all that. That’s where identity comes from,” Mamakwa, who is a member of Kingfisher Lake First Nation, said.
“We have our solutions and we just need the governments to help us on resourcing.”
But he says Premier Doug Ford’s government doesn’t care enough to make it happen.
‘How many more young people have to die?’
On Dec. 11 and 12, Mamakwa rose in the legislature to ask Progressive Conservative ministers to commit to an anti-suicide strategy for Indigenous youth.
“How many more young people have to die?” he asked. “How many young people have to lose hope before we wake up, as senior levels of government, and do what needs to be done to give these young people hope so they choose life over death?”
Mamakwa spoke about three young people who have recently died by suicide. Authorities didn’t find Devon Freeman, 16, for seven months after he took his own life just 35 metres from his Hamilton group home. Kerri-Lynn Bunting was only 13 when she died by suicide in Constance Lake First Nation on Nov. 27. And the next day, 12-year-old Rydell Mekenak died in Webequie First Nation.
Michael Tibollo, the government’s associate minister of mental health and addictions, said in response that this situation was created by “15 years of neglect” at the hands of the Liberal party.
He said the government’s yet-to-be-created mental health strategy will look “specifically at the needs of Indigenous people.”
Yet at a committee meeting two days earlier, Tibollo’s PC colleagues voted against an amendment to their mental health bill that would have done just that.
The committee on social policy met to finalize Bill 116, an act that lays the groundwork for a mental health strategy and “centre of excellence,” on Dec. 10.
NDP MPPs moved an amendment to the bill: “The mental health and addictions strategy shall include within it a comprehensive component that is specific to Indigenous peoples.”
Earlier: MPP Sol Mamakwa shares the story of a teen who took her own life. Story continues after video.
PC MPP Robin Martin, who’s the parliamentary assistant to the minister of health, said it would be discriminatory to create a strategy just for Indigenous people.
“I would make the comment … that by specifying a particular group it would imply that other groups are not included or less important and we prefer to keep it the way it is.”
Mamakwa said he was very discouraged when he saw video of Martin’s comment.
“With that statement, with that voting down, they’re undermining those kids I spoke about … And it doesn’t even matter to them,” he said.
“You can tell that they’re still very colonial people ... Some of these people are good people but they stand by this government. They stand behind those exact words.”
Nationwide, the suicide rate for First Nations people is three times higher than for non-Indigenous people, according to Statistics Canada. And the suicide rate for children and youth is 10 to 22 times higher in areas with a large First Nations population.
Martin’s staff did not respond to HuffPost’s request for an interview.
A spokesperson for the minister of health sent a one-sentence statement in response to a list of specific questions about Martin’s comment and what the PCs are doing to help Indigenous youth.
“The centre of excellence will address the specific needs of all Ontarians, including Indigenous peoples,” Hayley Chazan told HuffPost.
“They do not care what happens to us.”
Mamakwa said it’s “very clear” where the PCs stand on Indigenous issues.
“As residents of Ontario, we do not matter and they do not care what happens to us.”
He’s planning to have lunch with Ford in the new year and says he just wants to chat person-to-person.
“I think it’s important for him to understand who I am, where I come from, how I grew up.”
Mamakwa says his community didn’t have hydro until 1984 or running water until 1994, he said.
“People don’t understand that.”