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On reserves, kids killing selves

A DISTURBING HISTORY: Suicides on Manitoba reserves Desperate officials write Ottawa for help, await response to tragedies

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Three children have committed suicide in Pukatawagan in recent months and many more have tried, prompting the northwestern Manitoba First Nation community to beg Ottawa for help.

Provincial Children's Advocate Billie Schibler said two children from the chronically troubled reserve of Shamattawa on the other side of the province have also taken their lives so far this year.

That's despite pledges by the federal and provincial governments to get serious about the issue of aboriginal suicide.

"We've heard so much about swine flu -- that's all we've heard about for weeks. But there is suicide after suicide in aboriginal communities and you don't ever hear about those," said Sandi Rhodes, Pukatawagan's director of education. "If these were happening in Boissevain or Brandon, there would be an uproar. I'm very angry and I'm ashamed to say it, but I wonder if the attitude is 'this is just another dead Indian.' "

The most recent death happened late last month when a 13-year-old boy hanged himself in Pukatawagan. The boy was from a good family and showed no outward signs of emotional troubles. His family says he died as a result of a "blackout" game that involves choking, but RCMP, the band and the children's advocate consider the death a suicide. That has left the community of 1,500 people desperate for help and fearful of the next suicide.

Two more teens committed suicide last October within days of each other. Staff in Pukatawagan say more than two dozen other children and teens in 11 northern reserves have committed suicide in the last year while federal politicians do little.

Rhodes, along with Chief Arlen Dumas and the band council, wrote to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and to Health Canada's First Nation and Inuit Health Branch this month begging for more access to long-term counselling, a suicide prevention curriculum in schools, clinical experts, grief counsellors and training for teachers so they can recognize suicidal students.

"There's just not enough attention being given to the issue," Dumas said. "We know what to do. We just need the personnel to get it done."

Pukatawagan has yet to receive a response to the two-page letter.

INAC had nothing to say about the deaths. In an emailed response, Health Canada said it funds a wellness worker and a full-time counsellor on the reserve, along with various community programs like the National Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy, National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program and Brighter Futures.

Following the 13-year-old boy's death, mental health therapists were sent to Pukatawagan by the federal and provincial governments to help residents, and the provincial government is developing a crisis team able to deploy to communities later in 2009.

Manitoba's senior federal minister, Treasury Board President Vic Toews, did not return a call for comment, nor did Tory MP Rod Bruinooge, who has been his party's point man on aboriginal issues in Manitoba, or Tory MP Steven Fletcher, the former parliamentary secretary to the minister of health.

"Certainly there's no response in terms of a longer-term prevention program," said Churchill NDP MP Niki Ashton. "What's so shocking is the lack of action on such a large scale."

The latest rash of suicides in Pukatawagan echoes a familiar refrain from Manitoba's poverty-stricken reserves.

Seven years ago, Shamattawa was in the news after nearly 40 adults and children attempted suicide and at least three succeeded.

Shamattawa, 2002

In just over a week in July, three people committed suicide and another 39 tried. That sparked the same kind of temporary fix reserves have seen for decades. Ottawa and the province spent $100,000 to fast-track a one-year suicide prevention program that featured counsellors and a visit from aboriginal singer Susan Aglukark. The money also established a healing centre that was funded for just two years and then fizzled. Tracia Owen Inquest, 2008

The 14-year-old from Grand Rapids First Nation hanged herself in 2005 in a West End garage, the victim of sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and a child welfare system that failed her. In a stern report, provincial court Judge John Guy laid out 28 recommendations to improve social and child welfare services on reserves and in Winnipeg. The report prompted the province to create a series of programs in Winnipeg to combat sexual exploitation, but little has changed back on the reserves. Shamattawa, 2008

In May, four kids attempted suicide. The youngest was nine. They were among the 47 people who attempted to kill themselves in the first five months of the year. More than six months after news of the suicide crisis hit the news, the Manitoba government unveiled an $8-million plan to create a youth crisis centre in Thompson and a mobile crisis unit able to travel to reserves. However, that money is spread over four years and has barely started being spent. Ottawa was virtually silent on the crisis.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 19, 2009 A3

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