‘We can’t wait any longer’: FSIN to craft suicide prevention strategy

Fourth Vice Chief Heather Bear. Michelle Berg/Saskatoon StarPhoenix

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations is preparing to roll out a suicide prevention strategy, in light of grim statistics on the persistently high rate of suicide in First Nations communities.

The initiative stems from a resolution at the FSIN spring assembly, and should be ready by May of next year. It was announced Sunday to mark World Suicide Prevention Day.

The FSIN, which serves as an umbrella group for the province’s First Nations, brought on a suicide prevention adviser to survey the magnitude of the crisis. Drawing on coroner data since 2005, he found that the death rate by suicide for First Nations people in Saskatchewan is 4.3 times higher than for other ethnicities. For women aged 10 to 19, it’s 26 times higher.

Vice Chief Heather Bear called the data “alarming and disturbing.”

She said it shows the need for a “multifaceted” approach, focussing on mental health and disparities in housing, social and economic conditions. For Bear, the FSIN’s initiative is a response to what she called a “crisis-management” approach from the federal government. She faulted Ottawa for allegedly lacking a strategy, and said the FSIN is ready to fill the gap.

“We can’t wait any longer,” she said. “What the government has been doing isn’t working. We know this just because of the conditions. We need to come up with a strategy, by our people, for our people.”

Bear acknowledged that the federal government has provided funding for mental health initiatives, including recent commitments to expand mental wellness teams in Saskatchewan. But she said the funding isn’t enough.

“Our youth are crying out,” she said. “Our people have been through so much.”

She said the new strategy will offer solutions that First Nations across the province can implement with their own resources. But to really succeed, she said it will require additional funding from governments in Regina and Ottawa. She estimated that what’s needed could range in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

Bear explained that the FSIN has already been in touch with the former ministers of aboriginal affairs and health, Carolyn Bennett and Jane Philpott, to inform them about the plan. She said they seemed supportive of the idea. In fact, the federal government provided $150,000 to support work on the strategy.

In an official statement, Health Canada said that it’s pleased to provide funding on the strategy “to enhance community capacity.”

“Health Canada recognizes the scope and seriousness of the mental health issues that are facing First Nations communities and is committed to working with all First Nations partners on mental wellness initiatives,” the statement read.

“We will continue to work in partnership with First Nations leadership and communities to ensure that immediate and sustained support is available when it is needed. Together we can increase community resiliency and reduce risk factors associated with youth suicide.”

But that doesn’t mean Health Canada is simply accepting the criticism Bear levelled against their work, or her claims that they’re strategically adrift. Press officer Maryse Durette said that the department prefers to partner with First Nations “on an individual basis.”

“All First Nations differ,” she said. “It’s not that we’re dragging our feet, it’s just that we agreed with them that we do it that way.”

Bear laid out the steps that the FSIN will take to devise its new strategy. She said they have a mental health technical working group that will craft recommendations. They also plan to consult their youth assembly to learn “what the realities for them are.”

The plan will wind its way through the health commission, and eventually come before chiefs and assembly for final approval.

She said it’s important for First Nations people to develop their own plan. “It can’t be another program rammed down our throat,” she said. After all, they’re the ones most affected by a crisis that still touches so many – even Bear, who shared that her own daughter lost her life to suicide.

The pain “doesn’t go away.” But the experience taught Bear the value of the oral traditions of her elders, which helped her find acceptance and healing. Culture, she said, will undoubtedly be a major component of whatever strategy emerges next May.

“We know what’s best for our people,” she said. “Culture, values and beliefs need to come back… once we practice them, it does help you come up with solutions.”