US & Canada

Wapekeka First Nation suicides: Secret donor makes huge pledge

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde spoke about the need for better indigenous mental health resources.

An anonymous donor is pledging $380,000 (£230,000, $291,000) to help prevent youth suicide in an indigenous community in northern Ontario.

The offer was made after two 12-year-old girls committed suicide.

Leaders from Wapekeka First Nation met Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to talk about the community's suicide crisis.

But they say they still have not received any funding from the government, and time is running out.

"We know that there's still more youth in the community that's in high-risk situations," Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler told the BBC.

"We cannot afford to have any more delays and put any more lives at risk."

The remote community of Wapekeka drew national attention last week when elders came forward about the suicide crisis facing its community and its ongoing funding battle with the federal government over mental-health services.

Over the summer, Wapekeka notified Health Canada that they were aware some girls had entered into a suicide pact and asked for about $380,000 to create a youth suicide prevention programme.

But Health Canada told them it was an "awkward time" in their budget cycle, Mr Fiddler said.

Now one person, who wishes to remain anonymous, has agreed to fund the programme himself. About $30,000 (£18,000, $23,000) was wired to the community this week.

"It gives us hope," Mr Fiddler said.

Health Canada says it has already agreed to provide emergency and long-term funding for the community, and that it is still working out the details with Wapekeka's chief.

"The minister and departmental officials continue to monitor the situation closely to ensure that support is provided to the community on a priority basis," said ministry spokesperson Maryse Durette.

But Mr Fiddler, who oversees programmes for Wapekeka and 48 other First Nations in northern Ontario, says there's been "no word" Health Canada is willing to fund the full proposal.

New Democratic Party MP Charlie Angus, whose northern Ontario riding has faced similar struggles with suicide, says the government knows it is failing First Nations communities, but refuses to act.

Last year, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found the government discriminates against First Nations youth by underfunding children's welfare.

Although Health Canada is not responsible for delivering child welfare on reserves, it wrote in an internal memo that child mental health services in First Nations communities, which it is responsible for, were also underfunded and could be impacted by the ruling.

"What does is say about Canada in 2017 that after the brutal deaths of two children in a First Nation [community] that the government sits on the sidelines and the community has to rely on charity?" Mr Angus said.

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