Saskatchewan’s Advocate for Children and Youth says young Indigenous people in the province’s north have told him much more needs to be done to prevent suicide.
For more than a year, the advocate’s office interviewed 264 Indigenous young people from across the north to write the report, focusing on everything from bullying to lack of emotional support.
“Our kids are crying out for our help,” said Advocate for Children and Youth Corey O’Soup. “And as they cry out for help, they’re literally dying as we stand by and wait for tragedy to happen. Let’s not wait for the next kid to die.”
The numbers are staggering. According to the report, nearly half of the young people who died of suicide in Saskatchewan over the past five years were Indigenous. The suicide rate among First Nations people in the province is 4.3 times higher than the rate among non-First Nations people.
‘Let’s not wait for the next kid to die.’– Sask. Child Advocate Corey O’Soup
While the issue of youth suicide has been studied many times in the past across the country, this is one of the first times a large number of children have been asked to give their opinions on problems and solutions.
“They opened up their hearts, they opened up their minds, and told us what they thought,” he said. “And I think that’s what’s most powerful in the report.”
Calls to action
The report is organized into five youth calls to action, including bullying prevention, more diverse activities for youth and making communities safer.
“Our youth are telling us exactly what we need in our communities,” he said. “It’s not only us that has to respond, everybody has to respond.”
More than 250 people came together in La Ronge in 2016 for a candlelight vigil after a sixth suicide in northern Saskatchewan. (Submitted by Jim Searson)
O’Soup said the children also talked about how drugs and alcohol are affecting northern communities. While many of the kids said they lived an alcohol and drug free lifestyle, they told researchers that many people in their community don’t.
“Children, when it comes to drugs and alcohol, are more concerned about their parents and the adults in their communities,” he said. “They’re like, ‘I’m okay. Help my mom. Help my dad. Help my uncle. They’re the ones that need help.”
Ultimately, many of the children said it was most important to listen to what they had to say, and to ask lots of questions as to how they are doing.
“A lot of the time, they’re not doing fine,” he said. “You need to talk to them.”
The report calls for development of a province-wide suicide prevention strategy that would involve health, education and social services.
O’Soup also asked that Jordan’s Principle be enacted. The principle orders child welfare agencies to focus on the best interests of the child and that there be no service gaps for government services.
‘The results are clear. Our children are dying.’– Sask. Child Advocate Corey O’Soup
While he said there had been many anti-suicide programs offered in the north, it hasn’t been sufficient to end the problem.
“If (government) says, ‘Well, we’re already doing this, this and this,’ which is what typically happens, ‘this, this and this’ are not working,” he said. “The results are clear. Our children are dying.”
O’Soup believes that northern communities have the answers to solve these issues, but must be given the resources to enact them.
“We in the north have to be the ones generating strategies. But the government needs to be able to recognize that, and they need to properly fund it.”
Provincial government accepts report, NDP calls for concrete plans
Saskatchewan’s rural and remote health minister said he accepts all the recommendations of the report.
Greg Ottenbreit said one recommendation that stood out was making health services more accessible to youth.
In that vein, Ottenbreit said the provincial government has been working on integrating mental health workers into schools and increasing the number of psychiatric clinics in the north. But he said there’s been pushback to that approach.
“More often than not we hear, ‘We don’t want you to come here and fix us, we want to be part of the solution,'” he said.
“Sometimes it’s been a bit of a challenge when you want to get into a community and help, but you really have to wait for their suggestions and what they’re asking for for help.”
Rural and Remote Health Minister Greg Ottenbreit said he wants to continue working with the FSIN and the the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan on more solutions. (CBC News)
The Opposition NDP said the provincial government has not done enough to combat youth suicides in the province’s north.
Buckley Belanger, the NDP critic for First Nations and Métis Relations, said the Sask. Party promised a mental health strategy three years ago but has yet to implement it.
“In the meantime we’ve had a lot of lives lost, a lot of progress lost, and a lot of time lost,” said Belanger.
“So enough of that. Let’s really get serious and put some solid plans into place, in concert with the [Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations] and Métis Nation of Saskatchewan and northern leaders to see how we can build a better system for our young people, and of course our children.”
‘We have to look within ourselves’
Kristianna Mercredi, vice-principal of Churchill Community High School in La Ronge, said she wasn’t surprised by any of the findings.
She said she’s lived in the community nearly her entire life, and while more services and funding would be good, there is no point in waiting.
“Really it comes down to everybody in the community stepping up and doing something, not just waiting for somebody else or some agency to take over,” said Mercredi. “If we want to solve our problems we have to look within ourselves.”
Mercredi suggests La Ronge should open a youth centre.
In the community, she said girls in need are often turned away from the women’s shelter and boys are often forgotten about, and that leads to kids ending up in the justice system.
Mercredi said when it comes to creating solutions for young people, they need a seat at the table. She still has hope that things will get better.
“Yeah, we do have our issues, but so does everywhere else and I think that gets forgotten about,” she said.
“We are a strong, resilient people and we keep fighting no matter what’s thrown at us.”