Suicide Crisis in Wapekeka

First Nations community picking up the pieces following deaths of twelve-year-old girls

By SAM MATHERS
News Editor

In Wapekeka First Nation last month, two twelve-year-old girls took their own lives within days of each other. Following the tragic deaths of Jolynn Winter and Chantel Fox, four other children who were identified in the suicide pact were flown out of the community for medical treatment, and another twenty-six children were considered to be high risk. The recent tragedy sheds light on the intergenerational suicide crisis in Wapekeka and the lack of aid from the federal government.

Wapakeka belongs to Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a political territorial organization that represents 49 First Nation communities throughout northern Ontario. Covering two thirds of the province, NAN encompasses James Bay Treaty No. 9 as well as the portion of Treaty No.5 located in Ontario.

Since 1986, Nishnawbe Aski Nation has had 523 suicides.

The deaths of Fox and Winter come one year after the community called on the federal government to address the suicide crisis in Nishnawbe Aski Nation territory. Since then, at least 17 people have died by suicide. Just this summer, a youth mental health proposal was submitted to Health Canada by Wapekeka Chief Brennan Sainnawap. The community requested $376,706 that would be used to hire and train four mental health workers, citing several suicide attempts by adolescents in Wapekeka. Health Canada said the request came at an “awkward time” in the budget cycle.

At a press conference last month, Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler stated: “Funding became an issue this July. This past summer, they submitted a proposal to Health Canada and I heard a senior official from Health Canada say yesterday 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.

He continued, asking, “When is it the right time?

Located 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Wapekeka First Nation is a community of 363 people. They have a local radio station, a community operated post office and a four-classroom school. Two First Nations constables oversee the police protection of the community.

Suicide has long been an issue for Wapekeka. The community faced a crisis in the 1990s, after losing 12 people to suicide over a span of 10 years. In response, they developed a Survivors of Suicide program and became a leader in suicide prevention, holding an annual conference on the topic. The program ran for twenty-two years, until funding was cut.

The loss of the program has been linked to the recent increase in suicides in the community, but the root of the issue goes much deeper. In fact, the Anglican Church recently acknowledged its contribution to the “legacy of brokenness” in Wapekeka, left by former priest and Boy Scout leader Ralph Rowe.

Rowe travelled across northern Ontario for nearly two decades, flying between remote First Nations communities throughout the 70s and 80s. While working in 18 Nishnawbe Aski Nation communities, Rowe was beloved by the boys he worked with: starting a Boy Scout group, taking them on camping trips, and letting them stay at his mission house for movie and game nights.
In 1994, he plead guilty to 39 counts of indecent assault.

In 2006, another 31 alleged victims came forward. Then, in 2009, he was faced with another 6 charges. In 2011, 24 more men came forward.

Some estimates suggest Rowe had as many as 500 victims.

In the documentary Survivors Rowe, one of those victims says of the people in his community: “Whatever issues they have today happened because of Ralph Rowe. Our alcoholism, drug abuse, broken marriages; suicide is an epidemic. Ralph Rowe has a shadow over it.”

Suicide is not only an epidemic for Rowe’s victims, but an epidemic that has crossed generations.

The Aboriginal youth suicide rate is currently estimated to be five to seven times higher than the national average.

Last year the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the federal government discriminates against First Nations children by failing to provide child welfare services on par with those received by other Canadian children. The Tribunal found that the First Nations Child and Family Services Program “denied services to many First Nations children and families living on-reserve and resulted in adverse impacts for them because it was based on flawed assumptions about First Nations communities that did not reflect the actual needs of those communities.” The Tribunal also found that any attempts to reform the First Nations Child and Family Services Program “have failed to address the root causes of the adverse impacts experienced by First Nations children and families living on-reserve.”

Wapekeka has seen an emergency response and related support from Health Canada since the deaths of Fox and Winter. An anonymous donor stepped in where Health Canada initially failed, pledging $380,000 to the community. The donation is to help mitigate the cost of emergency mental health care and to restore the youth mental health program. While leaders in Wapekeka have expressed immense gratitude, they maintain that it does not relieve the federal government of their responsibilities. Fiddler said the community is “calling on this government to work with us on long-term strategies to stop the suicide epidemic that continues to devastate our communities.”

While it will undoubtedly help with immediate relief and support, the generous donation will not create real, lasting change in Wapekeka. The suicide crisis in the community and in Nishnawbe Aski Nation requires more than just money. It is an epidemic that is rooted in a dark past, an epidemic that has made its way through several generations.

Speaking of Canada’s upcoming 150th birthday, Fiddler said at the press conference: “It’s very difficult for us to envision our communities participating in those celebrations when our children are taking their lives by their own hands.”