As McGill prepares to head into its Aboriginal Awareness Week, it’s important to realize that a crisis is underway: Aboriginal teenagers are committing suicide at thirty times the average rate of the rest of Canada.
Suicide is a huge problem for Aboriginal communities: it is the cause of 50 per cent of teen deaths in northern Inuit communities. Compare that to the 10 per cent rate of teen suicide for the rest of the nation, and it’s clear that there is a real problem. At a time when suicide rates throughout the country have been dropping, the teen suicide rates in Aboriginal communities continue to steadily rise. If rates like this were found in communities in southern Canada, the situation would be regarded as a crisis. Yet much of the media remains quiet and the government plays down the suicides, taking no action.
It’s widely accepted that at least a portion of these deaths could be curbed by providing more programs for at-risk youth in native communities. Such programs, which include therapy and counselling services, can help address factors that may lead to suicide, such as depression, anxiety, and trauma. Youth suicide is often a result of anxiety, as well as sexual and emotional abuse – conditions which can be treated with therapy and counselling. Prevention programs have been shown to markedly reduce the likelihood of suicide attempts. Unfortunately, these types of services are few and far between in remote communities, and a significant increase in funding is needed to make them more widely available.
Despite this, the Harper government is taking the opposite approach: more cuts to Aboriginal health care. The National Aboriginal Health Organization, which provides vital health services to Aboriginal people – at a total operating cost of only $5 million – has had its funding slashed, as has the Native Women’s Association of Canada, which provides health services to Aboriginal women. Attempting a defense, the Harper government points to the minor investments it has made in the National Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy – but the same government still wants to cut $160 million from Aboriginal health services next year. Drastic cuts to these services put stress on the clinics and hospitals that deal with patients day in and day out, meaning that early warning signs often won’t be identified because of reduced resources and access to services.
This situation is unacceptable. Budget cuts almost always hit those with fewer resources – those who depend on social services – hardest. Right now, Aboriginal communities need increased, not decreased, funding for mental health services. As the crisis grows, the Health Minister’s office continues to trot out the tired line that their “priority is protecting the front-line health and safety services to First Nation and Inuit communities, and making sure that taxpayers’ dollars are used wisely.” The idea that cuts won’t affect so-called frontline services is a myth, and a dangerous one: money will be taken away from the places that need it. Taxpayer money – money that ought to be used to save lives and foster healthy communities – is being culled because the Harper government has other motives. Clearly, we need to sort out our priorities.