What one child’s suicide says about Ontario’s approach to First Nations health

Queen’s Park fell silent when MPP Sol Mamakwa paid tribute to 13-year-old Karlena Kamenawatamin, who killed herself last week. Mamakwa spoke to TVO.org about the suicide crisis on reserves and how government can take action
By Jon Thompson - Published on September 24, 2018
Sol Mamakwa
Before Sol Mamakwa was elected to the legislature in June, he led the health-transformation strategy for Nishnawbe Aski Nation (Chris Young/CP)

THUNDER BAY — The legislature fell quiet during question period last Thursday when Sol Mamakwa rose to speak about Karlena Kamenawatamin, a 13-year-old girl from the remote fly-in community of Bearskin Lake First Nation who had died by suicide the day before.

Mamakwa, NDP MPP for the majority-Indigenous riding of Kiiwetinoong, said the suicide rate in the riding’s First Nations is 50 times higher than the Canadian average. Nearly 600 lives have been lost to suicide in the area since the 1980s, according to at least one report. He called Indigenous suicides a health crisis, a mental-health crisis, a housing crisis, and an intergenerational-trauma crisis.

He led the legislature in a moment of silence to honour Karlena.

Before Mamakwa was elected to his seat in June, he led the health-transformation strategy for Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a political organization that represents 49 mostly remote First Nations in northern Ontario. The goal of the strategy is to give First Nations leadership more control over health services in the region.

TVO.org spoke with Mamakwa about his speech at Queen’s Park last week and what action should be taken on youth suicide in northern Ontario’s First Nations.

How did you find out about Karlena’s death?

It was by text. I got the name. I found out who the parents and grandparents are. Later that day, I reached out to the chief and the family as well. My late grandma on my dad’s side was a Kamenawatamin. That’s why I was asking those questions. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m distantly related to them.

How did you feel when the legislature fell silent?

Even though it was a difficult issue, I didn’t have difficulty saying it. I’m not sure if it’s just because I’m so normalized to it that I’m immune to the tragedies in our communities. It’s hard.

Did it make you believe that MPPs from all parties want to find solutions for youth suicide in First Nations?

After the moment of silence, Doug Ford came to me. We met on the floor. He shook my hand and told me, “It doesn’t matter what party we’re in. We’re all affected by what you just said. Talk to my ministers. See how we can help.”

So I talked to Lisa MacLeod, minister for children, community and social services, and also Greg Rickford, minister for Indigenous affairs. I told them, “Get your staff to get on this.” At that moment, there were no parties — no NDP, no PCs.

It was encouraging, but I know that’s not the end of it. We’ll see in the future how they’ll respond.

This issue is a complex one, though, isn’t it? It’s not as simple as encouraging young people not to take their own lives.

One of the things I’ve learned to understand about the systems — whether it’s education, health, child welfare — is that these aren’t broken systems. These systems are working exactly the way they’re designed to. They’re designed to take away the rights of First Nations people. That’s what I mean when I say these are colonial systems.

Some of the work I did before in health transformation brings the power, authority, resource allocation, responsibility, and accountability back to the communities. It’s empowerment. How do we decolonize our people? Those are the higher order things we need to think about. Our communities are in perpetual crisis, and that’s not acceptable anymore.

Can we draw a direct line between First Nations control of health systems and youth-suicide prevention?

It’s going back to the traditions of our people. If this is going to be run by First Nations, we’re going to need physicians. We’re going to need nurses and professionals to provide these services. On the education side, we need to prepare 15 or 20 years down the road to make sure our people are ready to take on these jobs. As it is right now, it’s very difficult to recruit people to work in health-care services for the north.

Before you were elected, you called on the federal government to respond to this crisis. The 2011 chief coroner’s report on the suicide crisis in Pikangikum recommended the creation of a national suicide-prevention strategy. What’s Ontario’s role here?

It’s unfortunate, the way governments work. They play this jurisdictional game of Ping-Pong, and our people fall into this jurisdictional black hole. We need real responsibility — and we need humanity back in that process.

I don’t think they realize that Ontario was a signatory to Treaty 9 [a 1905 treaty between Canada, Ontario, and various Cree and Ojibway nations]. We need to hold them to account. Certainly, when we talk about children and youth mental-health services, when we talk about developmental services, at best, they’re very minimal. At worst, they’re non-existent.

There are a lot of things we need to address. It’s not just mental-health services. It’s housing. There’s access to clean water, access to education, access to a good court system, access to food security. We need to provide those services close to home. When we had the Wapekeka crisis, in 2017, we were waiting, sometimes, six weeks to get a bed at the psychiatry unit in Thunder Bay. We were sending youth across the country because we don’t have enough beds to provide those mental-health clinical services.

What’s your role as Kiiwetinoong’s first-ever MPP? What are you going to do?

My role is to change the trajectory of thinking at Queen’s Park — to have not just my fellow MPPs, but also the general public understand that we have to deal with this crisis. In the last calendar year in the north, we had approximately 37 suicides [NAN grand chief Alvin Fiddler stated a figure of 38 at a press conference earlier this year; the statistic covers suicides only in NAN’s territories]. That is the highest it has ever been since the crisis started back in the ’80s.

One of the biggest resources our people have is the resource that’s there: the land, the hunting, the fishing. That’s where you get the language, the culture, the traditions, the teachings, and the values of our people. That’s where the healing comes from. The reserves were created to take us away from those lands. To get on the land, there’s healing there.

For readers who may identify with the topics discussed in this article, the Lifeline Canada Foundation’s website includes links to free counselling and other services, including programs geared toward Indigenous people.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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