National Column: This time, La Loche must stay in our focus

by Tim Harper – Toronto Star

Now, we can place La Loche on a map.

It took a tragedy of unspeakable proportion for the tiny northern Saskatchewan community to burst into Canadian sensibilities, but it has lived tragedy time and time again.

That most Canadians knew nothing about that until a multiple shooting shook the country Friday speaks to the isolation, the invisibility and the gap in services in so many remote First Nations communities in this country.

Had Friday’s shootings happened in Surrey or Scarborough we might be talking gun control again. That the shootings happened in a Dene community in our north, a community without a hotel, a restaurant, a
bank, a recreation centre or services we take for granted in the south should again focus debate on how Canadians in the far north fall off our radar.

It should again force us to ask ourselves why basic mental health services cannot be found in our isolated northern communities.

La Loche has lived through suicide epidemics in the past, largely unremarked upon by the rest of Canada.

There had been attempts to shed light on life – and death – in La Loche, most notably by the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and a 2010 University of Regina journalism school documentary.

The northwest portion of Saskatchewan, including La Loche, had, as of 2012, a suicide rate three times the Saskatchewan provincial average, four times the urban rate in that province.

One published report in 2009 claimed 45 La Loche teens attempted suicide over an 18-month period. More than half were successful.

The Star-Phoenix had a more moderate, but still shocking number, reporting that there were 18 successful suicide attempts over a four-and-a-half-year period from August 2005 to January 2010.

By now, the national statistics are well known.

First Nations youth commit suicide about five to six times more often than non-aboriginal youth. The suicide rate for First Nations males is 126 per 100,000 compared to 24 per 100,000 for non-aboriginals.

For females, the First Nations suicide rate is 35 per 100,000 compared to five per 100,000 non-aboriginal females.

Suicide rates for Inuit youth are among the highest in the world, at 11 times the national average, according to federal statistics.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall acknowledged the “terrible, stark” numbers of youth suicides and pointed to a suicide prevention program instituted by the province. But he also acknowledged it has seen more success in some communities than others.

Efforts are ongoing, the premier said, but Georgina Jolibois, the newly elected NDP MP for Desnethe Missinippi-Churchill River and former mayor of La Loche, remembers inviting Wall to a funeral of a suicide victim and having the premier decline.

“He told me he didn’t want to make suicide a political issue,” she recalled Sunday.

A suicide spate or the horrific shooting deaths of four focus world attention on La Loche, she said, but no one bothers to notice the efforts to make things better in between the bad news.

As mayor, she said, she and the community soldiered on without proper support from the province.

Federal funding cuts hurt cultural, youth and elder programs, she said.

Regardless, she added, there has been a jump in high school graduates in recent years. There is a carpentry apprentice program in the community. The streets have been improved, a playground built, people in La Loche have worked hard to emphasize the benefits of healthy diet and lifestyle and cultural history.

But she could not say whether the suicide rate had improved.

There has been a never-ending Canadian slide show of First Nations despair – glue-sniffing, alcohol and drug abuse, lack of potable water, unemployment, murdered and missing aboriginal women, homelessness, suicides – and the Canadian reaction is usually to recoil, then move on.

But there is reason for hope.

The incoming government of Justin Trudeau has pledged to reset the relationship between Ottawa and First Nations. The pledge has been made before, but this government’s agenda is remarkable in its

It has begun consultations on a national inquiry into missing and murdered women and has promised to institute the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Tuesday, there is hope that a nine-year battle by First Nations advocate Cindy Blackstock will result in a landmark Canadian Human Rights Tribunal finding that federal funding on child welfare discriminates
against Aboriginal children. If so, it will be one of the most significant First Nations breakthroughs in recent memory.

In the meantime, in La Loche, Jolibois will remember the teachings of her elders.

“We will come together and talk about positives we can take from this tragedy. With every incident there is an opportunity for learning,” she said.

That learning should not be restricted to La Loche.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Twitter: @nutgraf1

Copyright: 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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