Staff | Toronto Star · Jan 12, 2017
The grand chief of 49 northern First Nations is calling for a national suicide strategy after the loss of two 12-year-old girls since Sunday.
The small indigenous community of Wapekeka is in mourning after the suicide of a 12-year-old girl on Sunday and another 12-year-old girl on Tuesday.
There is concern that more children will try to take their lives. A crisis team has flown into the Oji-Cree community, which is about 450 kilometres northeast of Sioux Lookout, in northwestern Ontario.
Another four girls were to be flown out of the community on medical charter flights, said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler. Wapekeka First Nation is a Treaty 9 First Nation and one of NAN’s 49 communities. Treaty 9 was signed in 1905 by First Nations leaders and the Crown in northern Ontario; it covers an area roughly the size of France.
Fiddler said NAN held an emergency call Tuesday with federal and provincial representatives to plan a co-ordinated response.
But holding emergency calls and flying in teams when suicides spike should not be the answer to a crisis that has gripped indigenous communities for decades, he said, adding that what’s needed is a national strategy that sees stable and consistent help.
“It shouldn’t just be during times of crisis and stress when we all come together, which is what we do now … We need to develop a more comprehensive strategy, something that can be applied across the country — not just in NAN territories. Nunavut and Manitoba are also struggling,” he said.
Wapekeka went through a suicide crisis in the 1990s but the community came together, developed a strategy and stuck to its programs, he said. Then funding became a problem, and Wapekeka struggled.
As the community tries to come to grips with what has happened and make sure other youth are safe, Wapekeka’s band council is asking for privacy.
Northern First Nations have struggled with suicide epidemics for decades. There were more than 500 suicides across NAN First Nations from 1986 to 2016 and more than 70 of them were children aged 10 to 14, while another 200 were young people between the ages of 15 and 20. Last year, Attawapiskat First Nation declared a state of emergency after there were 11 suicide attempts in one evening.
Wapekeka is devastated, said Fiddler.
“We are working non-stop to co-ordinate an emergency response and are doing everything possible to ensure that the necessary mental health and counselling supports are made available immediately, especially for high-risk youth who need urgent medical attention and specialized care,” said Fiddler.
While there is no information as to the circumstances of what happened and why, Wapekeka has had a troubled past.
The remote community was one of the areas convicted pedophile Ralph Rowe targeted for nearly two decades. Rowe was a pilot, a Scout leader and Anglican minister. Recently, a documentary called Survivors Rowe, focused on three of Rowe’s abuse victims and how the consequences of the abuse they experienced has affected their lives. The film was shot at Wunnumin Lake, Wapekeka and on the Big Trout Lake First Nation.
The documentary alleges hundreds of boys were sexually abused by Rowe in a variety of northwestern Ontario indigenous communities. The true number may never be known as many victims have not wanted to disclose their pain. But indigenous leaders acknowledge Rowe’s legacy has led to many suicides in the region.
“It’s always been an issue for the community. A lot of it stems from Ralph Rowe. This was one of the communities where he was most active,” Fiddler said.
In 1994, Rowe was convicted of 39 counts of indecent assault on 15 boys aged 8 to 14. He was sentenced to six years in prison but served only 4.5 years.
Part of Rowe’s 1994 plea deal shielded him from facing more charges of a similar nature. However, in 2006, Rowe faced another 31 alleged victims and 75 charges, wrote Justice Erwin Stach in a July 2006 court document, the Star reported in 2011.
After preliminary hearings, the number of charges fell from 75 to 57 and complainants from 31 to 25. Five went to trial and only two cases resulted in convictions. Rowe was sentenced to three years in prison — one three-year sentence and another one year concurrent.