OTTAWA — The federal government will support the creation of a national suicide-prevention strategy for young people, with a suicide crisis gripping a First Nation in northern Saskatchewan, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller told a gathering of First Nations chiefs in Ottawa Tuesday.
Miller was short on details on what this strategy would look like, saying only that the government would work with First Nations communities on solutions they propose.
On Tuesday, a special gathering of chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations from across Canada began with a call for the federal government to step in.
National Chief Perry Bellegarde said action must be taken to stop Indigenous children and teens from feeling so hopeless they harm themselves.
"We know that too many of our young ones are taking their lives. And so we say to those young people that you're special, you are gifted and you're loved. Never forget that," Bellegarde said.
"We do call on this government to finally work with (our) leadership and families and people to finally implement a youth-suicide-prevention strategy. That is needed — one that supports all of our young people."
The Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation at Loon Lake, Sask., has raised concerns in recent weeks about “cluster suicides” in the community, about 360 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.
Band leaders say eight people, mostly youths, have tried taking their lives since the First Nation declared a state of crisis in mid-November.
That came after three deaths by suicide, including one of a 10-year-old girl, over three weeks.
Speaking on behalf of the AFN's youth council, Rosalie LaBillois broke into tears as she talked about her concern for young Indigenous people not only in Saskatchewan, but across Canada.
"We want to commit to making changes for our young people. Because, as leaders, I don't believe we're just here to look pretty. I want to get stuff done. I want to tell you the hard, cold truth that's happening in our communities," she said, as a number of chiefs surrounded her in support.
"Our communities, our homelands, are facing something that's very dark."
Miller said he has heard a proposals from different First Nations and Inuit organizations to help curb this distressing trend. He says his department will work with them to support a distinctions-based approach to developing a strategy — one that recognizes that different communities need different measures.
"The federal government will be there to support you," Miller said.
Bellegarde also called for more aggressive action on climate change as a way to offer more hope to young people.
Despite almost daily scientific reports being released painting a dire picture for the future of the planet if greenhouse-gas emissions continue to increase, Bellegarde said he believes there is a reason to hope for a positive outcome if governments are willing to work with First Nations on real climate action.
"The time is now for bold vision and decisive action," Bellegarde said.
"Their future is in all of our hands and they (youth) are telling us we all need to do better."
The meeting marked the first time Miller has publicly addressed the AFN since being tapped as the new minister of Indigenous services. He began with a long passage in Mohawk, which drew applause from the chiefs.
He acknowledged the federal government has "decades and decades of wrongs to right," but also noted that the new minority government will be working with Indigenous peoples "in a different, more difficult context."
Miller made a special note in his speech to talk about the recent ruling by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordering Ottawa to pay $40,000 to each First Nations child who was inappropriately taken away from his or her parents after 2006, as well as to their parents and grandparents.
Ottawa is appealing the ruling, arguing in Federal Court last week the ruling erred in law, while Liberal politicians say they want to negotiate a better, more comprehensive settlement for victims.
Miller said Tuesday government does not question that children harmed by past child-welfare policies deserve compensation.
"We're committed to working constructively, quickly and effectively with the parties to reach a comprehensive settlement that will benefit First Nations children and families. To do this, we're going to sit down at the table with partners and work it out."
Several other Liberal cabinet ministers are to address the assembly on Wednesday, including Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, Justice Minister David Lametti and Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 3, 2019.
Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press