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Native youth remain in distress


Paul Barnsley, Windspeaker Staff Writer, SHESHATSHIU, Labrador







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Hot on the heels of a plea from Labrador Innu leaders for outside help in saving young people addicted to gasoline sniffing in their communities, several remote First Nations in various parts of the country are coping with another rash of destructive behavior as young people take their own lives in numbers that are unmatched anywhere in the world.

In Pikangikum, Ont., eight young girls had killed themselves in the year 2000 as of mid-December. Pikanjikum, like another Labrador Innu community, Davis Inlet, made national news in 1994 as young people there killed themselves in shocking numbers.

Pikangikum?s suicide rate is 470 deaths per 100,000. The Canadian average is 13 deaths per 100,000. Other remote reserves in the region are plagued by similar numbers.

Equally disturbing, the Siksika First Nation in Alberta, a community that is not burdened with the problems of remoteness, (the community of 3,000 people is less than an hour from the city of Calgary) reported that it too was facing the problem. There have been eight deaths and 247 attempted suicides there this year.

Assembly of First Nations communications director Jean Larose told Windspeaker that National Chief Matthew Coon Come hopes to rally the chiefs ? and others ? to work together to find a solution to the problem.

?There is more to the tragedies that our communities live in every day than just Davis Inlet or Sheshatshiu or Pikangikum. They?re from all over the country,? Larose said. ?I can?t talk for the national chief, but I think what he was telling the chiefs (in a speech to the Confederacy of Nations on Dec. 13) was that these images have also awakened others to our conditions, others who might not have been watching up to now. And we need to use this awakening to get things moving. That?s my sense.?

Canada has had periodical reminders of these disturbing social problems over the last several years and a lot of money has been spent in attempts to stem the loss of life. This repeat of the events at Davis Inlet in 1994 is a vivid sign the solution has not yet been discovered.

Tony Hall, professor of Native American Studies at the University of Lethbridge, points to political agendas that have slowed progress so far. He said that, after an international human rights group called Innu communities in Labrador ?Canada?s Tibet? last year, officials in Ottawa seemed more concerned about the negative impacts to Canada?s international reputation than about helping solve the problem.

?I did notice that was very quickly abandoned when it came up in the context of the suicides,? Hall said. ?This seems to me to be the threshold against which there?s just a huge convergence of interests, this has got to be maintained within a domestic framework and anything is imaginable as long as its within the framework of Canada?s own domestic situation.?

Prime Minister Jean Chretien shocked Native leaders across the country in early December when he pledged to make social problems in First Nation communities a priority in his third term as prime minister.