Choose Life program funds emergency suicide response

NAN Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum (left) and Choose Life program co-ordinator Rosemary McKay. Choose Life is an immediate relief program under the Jordan’s Principle Child-First Initiative designed to help NAN First Nations access funds for mental health services to help address the epidemic of youth suicides.


Jolynn Winter and Chantel Fox, two 12-year-old girls from Wapekeka First Nation, committed suicide within days of each other early in January 2017. Theirs were two of many suicides in Ontario First Nation communities, and the tragedies underline the fact that Indigenous youth in Ontario are at much higher risk for suicide than the general population.
“Suicide is an ongoing issue with our Indigenous youth all across Canada,” said NAN Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum.
To better address this issue, the Choose Life working group was established to help Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) create “a concrete, simplified process for communities to apply for Jordan’s Principle funding.” It falls under the Child-First Initiative, which is designed to ensure services to children are not denied or delayed due to intergovernmental funding disputes. The working group could help address the immediate suicide crisis.
“Choose Life came as one of the immediate relief items under our Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. Child mental health has been a big ask,” Achneepineskum said.
However, lack of underlying infrastructure and questions about the program’s future raise concerns about the Choose Life program’s effectiveness in the long run.
“Although we welcome this… it’s a long way from fulfilling what we need in our communities,” she said.
Much of that need is basic infrastructure, which is missing in many First Nation communities. Mental health care is a challenge across the province. In remote communities, those challenges are often compounded by geographical barriers, lack of services, lack of basics like clean water, and lack of appropriate buildings to provide services.
“They can’t expect us to sit on a snowbank to conduct a parenting workshop, for example, or to talk about grief and loss. That’s pretty well what they’re telling us we have to do,” Achneepineskum said. She worked with Nishnawbe-Aski Legal Services Corporation for over 20 years during her career, travelling to various NAN communities. She saw firsthand why infrastructure is important. “There are times when I’ve met with my clients sitting on the dock. (It’s not ideal) when you’re trying to create a safe space for people to deal with their traumas.”
As of December 2017, 43 of 49 NAN First Nations have applied for funds under the Choose Life program to increase services within the community, and five others are in the process of applying, according to Rosemary McKay, NAN’s Choose Life program co-ordinator. Seven schools that serve NAN students in communities such as Thunder Bay and Sioux Lookout have also applied.
“One hundred and twenty thousand children and youth are under the Choose Life pilot project,” McKay said. So far, there have been 120 people hired under the program including program co-ordinators and 32 mental health workers. Due to extreme gaps in capacity, these workers do not necessarily have any previous formal health-care education.
“They are just people from the community who want to get trained,” McKay said. “NAN is assisting in the training, so we brought workers out here to do training in suicide prevention.”
McKay is the former chief of Bearskin Lake First Nation, a NAN community. She understands the challenges many NAN First Nations face. Her role is to help communities develop their own programs to meet their needs, guide them through the application process if they need help, and advocate on behalf of the communities.
Some First Nations are having success, she said.
“There are some communities that are really into it, like Mishkeegogamang. What I’m seeing is that the communities that have road access, they are able to do more than the remote communities. They’re able to get their funds and get into their projects.”
It’s perhaps not unusual to have varying degrees of success among any group of funding applicants. Again, the lines seem to be drawn at access and infrastructure.
“We’re finding that those communities that had infrastructure to be able to accommodate the programs are the ones that are being a little more successful,” Achneepineskum said.
There are other challenges as well. Achneepineskum said they will build a relationship with one person, but then the government lead will change, which happened last year.
“We’re always dealing with different people… It’s a whole cycle where we have to educate this person again, and this person has different ideas,” Achneepineskum said. Applications that may have been quickly administered before may subsequently face delays and additional scrutiny. “It continues to be a struggle.”
Both Achneepineskum and McKay said it was unclear how long funding for the Choose Life program would be available. Currently the Jordan’s Principle Child-First Initiative, which administers the funding, is set to expire March 31, 2019.

Filed in: First Nations, News

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