By Linda Nguyen, Postmedia News (September 3, 2011)
The federal and provincial governments need to urgently improve basic living conditions for an impoverished, remote northern Ontario First Nations community if it wants to put an end to a "extraordinary rate" of teen suicides there, according to a yearlong review by the provincial coroner's office.
The 215-page report released Friday by the Ontario Office of the Chief Coroner identified a number of factors that it says contributed to the 16 child and youth suicides that have occurred on the Pikangikum First Nation reserve over a two-year old period.
The review found that the fly-in community of 2,400 in northwestern Ontario lacks basic infrastructure, such as easy access to clean drinking water, a sewage system, a school, recreational facilities, and health services, including substance abuse programs.
This has led to a sense of hopelessness among the younger generation in the community, concluded the report, which outlined more than 100 recommendations.
"What we require right now is action," says Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo.
Atleo says the problems plaguing Pikangikum are not unique. Many Aboriginal communities feel like they are being "left behind" by the government.
"Canada stands for human rights around the world but the backdrop here is a deep and growing gap between First Nations and the rest of Canada," he said.
During 2006-08, 16 children and youth from 10 to 19 years old committed suicide. The majority of the deaths were hangings.
In the last two months alone, five young people have committed suicide. The latest death was of a 26-yearold on Aug. 29.
The Pikangikum First Nation has a suicide rate of 470 deaths per 100,000 people, which is 36 times the national average and one of the highest in the world, according to a 2004 article in the Canadian Journal of Native Studies.
One of the major recommendations calls on the federal government to fulfil a promise to rebuild a school in Pikangikum after the old one burnt down four years ago. Since then, classes have been held in 17 portables.
A building, says the report, would give students a sense of permanence in their community. Currently only 520 students are enrolled this year, with an estimated 300500 school-age children not attending classes at all.
Improving education prospects also would entice students to finish high school and pursue post-secondary education. None of the nine students who graduated from his school in 2009 went on to college or university.
None of those who died sought medical help in the month before their suicides. Almost all had a history of mental-health problems.
One of the most "troubling findings" was the rampant substance abuse among children in the community. The latest statistics show that 27 per cent of girls in Grades 3 and 4 self-reported sniffing gasoline to get intoxicated.
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