In the spring of 2017, I was driving down May Street in Thunder Bay, Ontario, with Ricki Strang. We had just gone on an emotional walk along the McIntyre River, which weaves around a strip mall, past a parking lot, and underneath an overpass. We were remembering his younger brother Reggie, whose body was found in the water there on November 1, 2007. Reggie was one of seven First Nations students who died while attending high school in Thunder Bay between 2000 and 2011. Ricki was only 16 when he woke up in the river on October 26, 2007, the last night he saw his 15-year-old brother alive. Ricki mentioned that he had to leave the next day so he could attend a memorial service for Amy Owen, a girl back home in Poplar Hill First Nation, a remote fly-in reserve more than 600 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay. He quietly told me that she was really young and that she had died by suicide.
On the evening of January 8, 2017, Amy Owen ran out of her Ottawa-area group home and headed straight for the train tracks across the street. This was where the 13-year-old planned to die. The head of the Beacon Home remembers that in the evenings, Amy would talk about how she needed to do it. She wrote it on the walls, on pieces of paper. “I need out of here” was one message. “I want to die” was another. The night that Amy ran, staff at the seven-bed facility for teenage girls were ready and right behind her. Amy would not be successful that day.
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One of Amy’s closest friends would be: that same night, more than 1,000 kilometres away, in the remote northern Ontario fly-in First Nations community of Wapekeka, 12-year-old Jolynn Winter took her own life.
Two days later, on January 10, also in Wapekeka, Sandra Fox stepped out briefly to get pain relievers for the persistent discomfort in her leg. When she came home, she found that her daughter, Chantell Fox, also 12 years old, and Jolynn’s best friend, had hanged herself.
Amy would follow suit, but not for another three months.
Seven girls in all, whose lives had intersected back home or in group homes or care facilities far away from their First Nations communities, took their lives within a year of one another.
Alayna Moose, 12. Kanina Sue Turtle, 15. Jolynn Winter, 12. Chantell Fox, 12. Amy Owen, 13. Jenera Roundsky, 12. Jeannie Grace Brown, 13.
Far beyond the dense, brightly lit skyscrapers and condominiums in the cities that ring the Great Lakes of southern Ontario, the people of Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), a political organization comprising 49 First Nations spread out over the northern two-thirds of the province, have been trying to stop their children from dying.
The seven girls were from Poplar Hill First Nation and Wapekeka First Nation, both communities with populations of less than 500 people. The anguish over the loss of the girls blankets NAN territory, covering the land east from the Manitoba border to James Bay, and then north to the shallow shores of Hudson Bay. The deaths of Jolynn and Chantell — granddaughter of Wapekeka’s chief, Brennan Sainnawap — hit the community so hard that nearly all the teenagers living there were put on suicide watch. Counsellors and mental-health experts from the cities were flown in, and distraught children were sent on medical flights to be assessed by psychiatrists and doctors in southern hospitals, far away from home. The sadness overwhelmed the tiny, tight-knit community.
Some people have called the deaths of the seven girls a “suicide pact,” implying that the action was designed and formulated as a grand plan. Anna Betty Achneepineskum, former deputy grand chief of NAN, bristles at that term. She sees things differently. It was not a pact; that word covers up the root of the problem — what the girls were experiencing was tremendous grief, and as a result they were struggling to cope.
“Kids don’t talk about suicide or talk about a pact for no reason,” says Anna Betty. “They are talking to each other about their trauma. And in a small community, you just can’t isolate yourself from trauma.”
It did not have to be this way. In the early summer of 2017, six months before his granddaughter’s death, Chief Sainnawap sent a note to Health Canada, the federal bureaucracy in charge of health funding for all the Indigenous people in the country, begging for assistance. The community leaders had discovered that some of their youth had made a suicide pact. The leaders were seeking $376,706 to immediately hire a mentalhealth team of four workers who could deliver prevention and intervention programs and help create a healthy community environment. The request was denied. When the girls’ deaths made national and international news, the community later heard through the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that Wapekeka’s request had come at an “awkward time” during the budgetary cycle — there simply wasn’t any funding available.
This was not the first time that a cry for help from the community was ignored. In 2015, after 22 years, Ottawa abruptly cut the funding for the annual Survivors of Suicide Conference in Wapekeka, where there had been 16 deaths by suicide from 1982 to 1999. Wapekeka and the surrounding First Nations had grown to rely on the annual meeting as a time to come together in an Indigenous space, honour those they had lost, and together seek a new path forward. The conference meant much to the people who had lived the experience of loss and who couldn’t afford a charter plane to a big-city, Western-focused medical conference on the issue.
On January 18, 2017, days after NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler had flown to Wapekeka to attend the funerals of Chantell and Jolynn, he got on another plane in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and flew to the nation’s capital. There he held a news conference at the National Press Gallery with Joshua Frogg, Wapekeka’s band manager and Chantell’s uncle; Sioux Lookout’s Dr. Michael Kirlew; National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde; Charlie Angus, a New Democratic Party member of Parliament; and Jonathan Solomon, the grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Council of Cree Nations along the western side of James Bay. The council’s eight communities had suffered unbearably high numbers of youth suicides and attempts — 600 alone since 2009, so many that it prompted them to hold their own two-year-long “People’s Inquiry into Our Suicide Pandemic.” Nearly 300 people from the community had participated, 77 personal stories were recorded, and recommendations were made in a report released in January 2016. By the time of the news conference, exactly one year later, the council still had not received a response from the federal government.
In February 2016, a few weeks after the release of the Mushkegowuk report, Fiddler and NAN had declared a “state of emergency”— NAN territory was experiencing a health and suicide crisis. Children were dying from preventable illnesses and by their own hands because of a lack of access to proper nursing and medical care. In May 2014, five-year-old Brody Meekis, from Sandy Lake First Nation, died of strep throat — an illness that can be cured with antibiotics if properly diagnosed. Brody had been at the Sandy Lake nursing station with his two brothers; all were feeling unwell, but the boys were sent home without having had throat swab tests. Instead, they were told to use Vicks VapoRub and come back if the symptoms persisted. Because they didn’t have a car and couldn’t access the sole medical transport van at Sandy Lake, they were unable to return to the nursing station for further treatment. When Brody’s father tried to get another appointment, he was told a time wasn’t available for at least a week. Brody continued to get worse. Days later, his mother took him back to the nursing station, but it was too late. He passed away. Brody was the second child in NAN territory to die of strep throat, a common, treatable infection. For NAN, Brody’s death highlighted a host of issues with the poorly supported health clinics on reserves: a lack of doctors and adequate staffing, issues with nurses’ qualifications, a shortage of supplies, and the infrastructure of the clinics themselves being below standards.
NAN had outlined a series of directives that had to be executed within 90 days in order to manage the state of emergency. At the time, these were ignored.
So, too, were the mental-health recommendations drawn from the inquest following the deaths of the Seven Fallen Feathers: NAN high school students Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Paul Panacheese, Robyn Harper, Reggie Bushie, Kyle Morrisseau, and Jordan Wabasse. Between 2000 and 2011, all seven lost their lives while attending high school in Thunder Bay. Because their communities did not have basic functioning high schools, the children had to move 600 kilometres away from their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers, their homes and their communities, in order to pursue their education. Made on June 28, 2016, the inquest’s recommendations — specifically numbers 37 and 38 — addressed the suicide crisis. Recommendation number 37 called on the federal and provincial governments to work with NAN to devise a mental-health plan for youth, and recommendation number 38 called for the Province of Ontario to “improve consistency and enhance co-ordination” of on-reserve mental health services. At the time, those two recommendations were also ignored.
Alvin Fiddler had had enough. The father of two teenage girls and the son of Moses Fiddler — a witness to the signing of the 1929 adhesion to Treaty No. 9, which saw much of what is now northwestern Ontario swallowed by the Crown — Alvin was frustrated and tired of working within the government’s parameters and antiquated legislation. For years he had been playing by the government’s rules, following the proper protocol channels. NAN was constantly financing studies, writing reports, and applying for funding to the federal government so that its communities could receive basic services such as clean, drinkable water, proper sewage treatment, working fire trucks, and police services. Progress was always woefully slow, if any was made at all. Too often, it was only when First Nations deaths were reported in the news that the government took action.
The day before Fiddler started the press conference on January 19, 2017, NAN released a searing letter he had written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who had promised in December 2015 to “reset” Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people, establishing a “renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations peoples, one that understands that the constitutionally guaranteed rights of First Nations in Canada are not an inconvenience but rather a sacred obligation.”
Fiddler’s letter described how fundamentally broken the relationship was between NAN communities and the Government of Canada. It outlined a devastating list of all the unacted-upon court orders, the ignored inquest findings, and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada’s consistent failure to respond in times of crisis — all during Trudeau’s brief tenure in office.
“As you have acknowledged in the House of Commons,” Fiddler wrote, “these tragedies are a result of our colonial history, and we need to fix a relationship that has broken over the past decade, and indeed over centuries between Canada and Indigenous peoples. We are Treaty partners. But, this partnership changed over time, increasingly defined by choice on one side, and legislative constraints on the other.
“First Nations are not sitting on their hands and expecting the federal government to solve the tragedies of their communities. But, we have been legislated into a position where our power is to make proposals and seek program dollars from your bureaucracy. When we are then ignored, our hands are tied and our children continue to needlessly die.”
Excerpt from All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward copyright © 2018 by Tanya Talaga, reproduced by permission of House of Anansi Press Inc., Toronto. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without written permission from the publisher. www.houseofanansi.com