The Toronto Star, has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on federal and Ontario politics as well as shaping public opinion.
A coroner’s inquest into a suicide routinely results in recommendations for more accessible, comprehensive and better funded mental health services. Ontario’s examination of the suicides of 16 children on a northern First Nations reserve is no different on that score. It’s Ontario deputy chief coroner Dr. Bert Lauwers’ call for other things — things so basic that they shouldn’t need mentioning — that really make his report stand out.
Access to clean water. Indoor plumbing. A decent school. How can communities without such basic necessities still exist in Ontario? The level of poverty and deprivation in the fly-in community of Pikangikum First Nation, 100 kilometres east of the Manitoba border, is appalling. It helped to create such deep despair that children, like the 12-year-old boy who hanged himself from a poplar tree outside his grandmother’s home and a 16-year-old girl who hanged herself with a shoelace in the laundry room, could see no way forward.
The coroner’s 100 recommendations are not just a blueprint to stem the dramatically high suicide rate of First Nations children and youth in northern Ontario. They are an indictment of the conditions that Ottawa has allowed to persist for far too long.
With so many recommendations to choose from, the school is as good a place as any to start fixing the problems. For starters, there should be a real one, not the broken-down series of portables that passes for a school now. There should be a public health nurse inside the school and outside children’s playgrounds and sports fields, as the coroner recommends. How can a community where kids pack houses to the rafters not have anywhere decent to play?
The Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development must fund First Nations education at a level comparable to what other children and youth in Ontario get. Right now, it falls thousands of dollars per child short. The recommendation that responsibility for education on reserves be transferred from Ottawa to Ontario — along with the funding to carry it out — deserves serious consideration. It’s time that all children were afforded the same educational opportunities, whether they live in Toronto or a remote northern reserve.
There is no better warning of just how bad things can be for children in these communities than the recommendation that teaching them how to prevent gasoline sniffing should begin in kindergarten.
Without providing basic necessities — clean water, nutritious food and a safe house to live in — and the opportunity for a decent education, we will never be able to stem the tide of despair on northern reserves. This shouldn’t need saying in 2011. Obviously, it still does.