The Ontario government needs a specialized non-partisan strategy to address the issue of suicide among First Nations youth, says the NDP’s Indigenous Affairs critic Sol Mamakwa.
“In 25 years, in 30 years’ time, we want to eliminate suicide. I think that should be our goal,” Mamakwa told APTN News in a telephone interview.
“I always thought the health care system was broken. But I soon realized that it was not broken. Rather it was working exactly the way it was designed to – which is to take away the rights of the people, the rights of Indigenous people to the lands and resources that are up there,” he said.
“So you can say that about education, you can say that about the housing program, you can say that about the justice system, you can say that about the child welfare system. These are colonial systems. They were never created in the best interest of our people.”
Mamakwa is an NDP Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) for Kiiwetinoong Riding in northwestern Ontario.
He was elected in 2018 and is a member of the Kingfisher Lake First Nation, Ont., the only MPP from a First Nation, and speaks fluent Oji-Cree.
“I grew up on the reserve. I grew up on the land. I grew up hunting and fishing and all that. That’s where you get the language, the identity, the culture, the teachings, the traditions of our people. And we need to get that back,” Mamakwa said about his connection to his community.
“I think it’s really critical that youth have access to that because healing comes from there. Teachings come from there. And that’s our identity as Indigenous peoples. That’s where we come from.”
On Wednesday, Dec 11, 2019, I asked questions about youth suicides in Webequie and Constance Lake. Suicide should be a non-partisan issue and we will continue to work together in finding solutions.
Kerri Lynn and Rydell will be in our hearts and memories forever. ❤️❤️ pic.twitter.com/tQt7KT1IVW
— Sol Mamakwa MPP (@solmamakwa) December 15, 2019
He raised the issue of a suicide prevention strategy last week during the Legislative Assembly of Ontario’s question period.
“We need more than thoughts and prayers from this place,” he told the legislature.
“On November 27, Kerri Lynn Bunting died by suicide in the community of Constance Lake First Nation. She was 13 years old. On November 28, Rydell Mekenak died by suicide in the community of Webequie First Nation. He was 12,” Mamakwa told question period.
“The issue of youth suicide in our communities is a long-term problem. Colonization and its ongoing effects contribute to the crisis of youth suicide.
“The continued neglect by colonial governments such as this place means young people fall through the cracks – like Rydell, Kerri Lynn, and Devon Freeman who died by suicide while in the child welfare system but was not found for seven months.”
Sixteen-year-old Freeman was last heard from alive Oct. 6, 2017.
On Nov.27, nearly two months later, Hamilton police were asking the public for information.
Freeman wasn’t found until April 2018 – more than six months after his death – in a wooded area 35 metres from the group home where he lived at the time.
Mamakwa asked the government if it would commit resources and develop a strategy to address First Nations youth suicide.
Greg Rickford, Ontario’s minister of Indigenous Affairs said that work is underway.
“We have benchmarks for success, Mr. Speaker, in terms of reducing the frequency [of suicide] in communities by having hub services, wraparound services for teens in crisis, in the school, a facility in the community,” Rickford told the legislature.
He used Pikangikum First Nation in northern Ontario as an example where he said his government has made “significant progress coordinating across different ministries” to offer programs and services for youth experiencing some form of crisis.
He didn’t address Mamakwa’s comments about the ongoing effects of colonization.
Rickford also serves as minister of Energy, Northern Development and Mines. He brought up economics as he finished his response.
“We need to talk more seriously about the economic opportunities of these communities, opening up these communities so that people have a chance, Mr. Speaker, for a good job and the hope of the kind of economic prosperity that most communities in other parts of the province have a good shot at.”
But Mamakwa told APTN that action speaks louder than words – and he hasn’t seen enough of it.
“We cannot continue to accept those kinds of responses,” he said about Rickford’s answer.
“Those are just words to me.”
APTN reached out to Rickford’s office but did not hear back by the time of publication.
Watch: Ontario PC party votes amendment down
The following day, Dec. 12, Ontario parliament passed into law a bill that addresses mental health and addictions.
But during a Dec. 10 meeting of the Standing Committee on Social Policy, the NDP tabled an amendment Mamakwa said would have created a “provincial mental health and addictions strategy for Indigenous peoples.”
Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government shut it down in a six against three vote.
Conservative MPP Robin Martin argued on legal grounds that no one ought to receive special consideration.
“We’re talking about, what is in the statute—the same comment that I made before, which is, by specifying a particular group, it might imply that other groups are not included or are less important. We prefer to keep the thing the way it is.”
Bill 116 is called Foundations for Promoting and Protecting Mental Health and Addictions Services Act, 2019.
During question period, Mamakwa’s concerns were referred to the associate minister of Mental Health and Addictions Michael Tibollo, who didn’t reference the amendment.
Tibollo said his government takes these issues seriously and will look “specifically at the needs of Indigenous people to ensure that we capture and provide the services that they need, when and where they need them.”
“It’s our intention, utilizing Bill 116, to ensure that that is in fact what we do as a provincial government,” Tibollo added.