Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Take me off your guest list, Harper

I want a prime minister who values people more than photo ops

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I don't want to meet Stephen Harper. Ever. I don't wanna bump into him on the street; I don't want to sit across the table from him in a meeting; and I certainly don't want to hear empty promises face to face. But what I do want — and maybe I am crazy for thinking this — is a prime minister that stands up for all Canadians all the time. I don't want a prime minister with a selective memory and a media-centred strategy for working with First Nations people. I don't want a government that only sees one colour of suicide. I want a government that listens to our children when they ask for help and does what's right. Every time, not just sometimes.

Recently, he came to Winnipeg for an announcement and was going to be discussing protecting children from cyber-bullying. I was really happy he chose our community to make this announcement, because I was hoping he would be able to help out with this epidemic — this challenge of keeping kids safe, of preventing suicide that is such an issue in our community. This is an issue in Winnipeg. I have personally written about it many times. This issue of youth suicide is current, it is fresh, it is happening now. It is everywhere in First Nations communities.

First Nations young people are five to six times more likely to commit suicide than their non-aboriginal Canadian counterparts. In Winnipeg, in the inner city, the Point Douglas census region statistically has the highest rate of suicide and suicide attempts in all of Winnipeg. Recently, one of the young leaders known to many other indigenous and inner-city leaders committed suicide at the age of 18. This was less than a month ago. In places such as Neskantanga, Ont., there are whole First Nations that have declared states of emergency recently due to the alarming rate of suicide. This is an epidemic. But where is Harper's response? Where is the expedited process for these communities? When will these communities have an opportunity to have their voices heard? We need help, and I thought we were finally going to get it.

Last Friday, Harper recommitted to combat cyber-bullying with an expedited review of the Criminal Code. Being in Winnipeg, to him it seemed appropriate to bring in the families of Amanda Todd and Rhatea Parsons. He reached to both ends of our country and imported some cases to address this issue of suicide. These young people's deaths have attracted national attention. So I can see how bringing them in would achieve the desired sensationalism and media buzz. However, why did he look over all of our dead bodies to non-indigenous, media-familiar families?

I agree they have endured horrible losses, and this isn't intended to be an us-versus-them battle, but where is his response to Shamattawa? His response to Sean? I am not upset with these families. I am grateful they are raising the attention that is owed to this issue to prevent future scenarios. But if Harper wants to get tougher on how we talk about bullying, he'd better get real on the issue of suicide, name that epidemic and contribute to providing tools for young people to address this in supported environments.

These families from the east and west coasts have been provided with an opportunity to speak directly to our prime minister, which is a great opportunity. But what about those other communities? Why don't they get an opportunity to speak to our prime minister, or even have the same attention given to them from the mainstream media? Because the roots of that issue are too deep. And it can't be packaged as a one-off as a result of bullying among peers.

Our suicide rate is indicative of years of colonialist policy and service delivery. If he were sincere about this issue, he would sit down with aboriginal youth and talk about suicide with those who are alive and dealing with this today and maybe he could empower some youth to keep their peers from this awful fate.

I challenge Harper to a meeting with some indigenous young leaders to answer our questions about suicide. I would not be one of the young people in this group. There are younger, sharper, more able minds who can speak to the effects of this issue than myself. I simply believe the indigenous youth voice must be heard. I could certainly find a willing group. Let's see Harper's response when he is confronted with a little bit of our daily reality.

I am offended this prime minister would not only ignore the entire epidemic of youth suicide in indigenous communities, but also offended he is completely hypocritical by saying he wants to stop Internet bullying while engaging in a media spree of Internet and TV ads bullying one of his political opponents.

You wanna stop bullying? Look in the mirror and make a few changes. Use your example and influence to effect sincere change instead of participating in photo ops.

I am committing myself to working with the young people in my community and anyone who is willing to be a part of the solution. I will no longer waste my energy trying to work with people who don't want to work with us.

It's not about you, it's about them.

So Stephen, if you're reading this, and I hope you someday do, just know this is one citizen who has absolutely zero interest in speaking with you ever. But I will be working my ass off in my community trying to stop this epidemic from the inside, with respect, a positive example and love.


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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 19, 2013 A10


Updated on Sunday, May 19, 2013 at 6:08 PM CDT: adds link, fixes typos, fixes headline

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