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Saskatchewan's children's advocate calls for immediate action to combat northern youth suicide

There’s a 10-year-old girl in northern Saskatchewan who thinks of rhinos whenever she sees people frequenting her community’s liquor store.

“They’re gonna run us over when we’re driving. They’re gonna run after us with their big horns,” she told Corey O’Soup, Saskatchewan’s Advocate for Children and Youth.

The girl was one of 264 youth who spoke with O’Soup this year as he attempted to understand why northern Saskatchewan’s young Indigenous people are taking their lives at “staggering” rates.

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Data published by the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations this fall show the rate of suicide among Indigenous girls aged 10 to 19 is 26 times higher than that age group in the province generally, while the rate of suicide among Indigenous boys the same age is six times higher.

Youth from 12 communities north of Prince Albert told O’Soup that drug and alcohol abuse are widespread in their communities; that they don’t always feel safe; that there aren’t enough activities for kids of all ages; that bullying and cyberbullying are significant problems; and that there isn’t enough emotional support for youth.

“I think youth and kids in my community are thinking about taking their lives because they feel unwanted, unloved or not cared for. That’s how I feel sometimes,” one youth told O’Soup.

Saskatchewan's new Advocate for Children and Youth, Corey O'Soup. O'Soup is from the Key First Nation.


Saskatchewan Advocate for Children and Youth Corey O’Soup

Don Healy /

Regina Leader-Post

Some young people told him they want liquor stores shut down in their communities. Some said they wish police would do a better job of cracking down on drug dealers. Some said that if their local stores had more affordable fresh food, their parents would not be as stressed out and their home lives would be better. 

“The world experienced by young people today and the pressures they face, in general, are different from that of previous generations,” O’Soup said in his 52-page report, released Tuesday.

“Northern Indigenous communities are especially vulnerable due to their isolation, the travesty of colonial history and the lasting effects of the intergenerational trauma resulting from residential schools. Moreover, the youth of northern Saskatchewan, specifically, are a distinct population with unique strengths and challenges.”

In his report, O’Soup said his office is “raising alarm bells” about the high rate of suicide among Indigenous youth and that the government needs to take “immediate” action.

The report calls on the province to provide financial support to the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and the Metis Nation to develop and implement suicide prevention strategies.

It also calls on the federal and provincial governments to fully implement Jordan’s Principle, which aims to ensure Indigenous children receive public services even if there are disputes between different levels of government or different government departments about who should pay for those services. Under Jordan’s Principal, whichever government department an Indigenous family goes to for assistance pays for the service and can be reimbursed by the appropriate government or department after the child has received the service. 

Much of O’Soup’s report is told in the voices of the young people who spoke with him.

Their insight can be heartbreaking.

“Bullying is, like, to this whole new extreme. Like, before I remember from elementary (it) was like taking someone’s shoes or something. Now it’s violently beating someone and harassing them,” one youth told O’Soup.

“There’s like a lot of people on the reserves, their parents drink and, … are with like drugs, they overuse those drugs and all. Then, … sometimes they don’t have enough money to get groceries. And I would know, because my best friend is like that,” another youth said.

O’Soup launched his investigation into northern Saskatchewan suicides after six girls between the ages of 11 and 14 took their lives in October 2016. 

Youth in one community told O’Soup they could not talk openly in school about their classmates who died, and that this was frustrating.

“Teachers need to be allowed to talk more openly,” a youth told O’Soup. “When the suicides happened, they just said ‘a student passed away’ … That was the only thing they were allowed to say. The kids want to talk about it. They need to talk about it and the teachers — the ones they trust the most — don’t talk about it.”

Youth said they want adults to receive more education about suicide, that they want more to be done to discourage bullying and that kids in northern communities need to have access to activities such as chess, music and drama.

Some youth said they wanted their communities to have shelters for kids who need support — an idea one youth dubbed “a kid’s hotel.”

“Like sometimes kids in the community they get kicked out of the house,” a youth said. “They’re like 10 years old. It’s -30. Their parents are drunk out of their minds. Their parents are beating on them and they have absolutely nowhere to run to. So where do they go when it’s -30 out and it’s 10:00 at night or 3:00 in the morning? It’s like they don’t have a place to run to. A place that they can trust.”

O’Soup said he did not expect his report to offer new insight on the risk factors related to suicide, but that it was nonetheless important for his office to share the voices of northern Saskatchewan’s youth.

“These young people have a right to be heard. These youth have spoken clearly about wanting a life where they can feel safe, secure, and protected,” he said in his report.

“Our governments need to LISTEN to these children who are crying and pleading for our help, and dying while waiting for it.”

ahill@postmedia.com
Twitter.com/MsAndreaHill

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