A child takes her own life as suicide pact shakes indigenous Canadian community

By Samantha Schmidt, The Washington Post - June 23, 2017

The three 12-year-old girls made a pact: They would all take their own lives.

They lived in Wapekeka First Nation, an isolated community of less than 400 people in the boreal forest of northwestern Ontario, Canada. The Oji-Cree community – which can only be reached by aircraft – is one of many indigenous groups in the region plagued by high rates of suicide over the years and lacking the necessary funds to address the crisis.

So when local leaders learned about the girls’ suicide pact, they immediately pleaded with the federal government for health funding and suicide prevention help. But their requests were turned down.

In January, two of the 12-year-old girls, Jolynn Winter and Chantel Fox, took their own lives just two days apart, according to a Wapekeka statement. The community closed its school, flew in a crisis team, and flew out several at-risk children – including the third girl in the pact – to receive treatment and 24-hour monitoring.

But less than six months later, the third girl followed in their footsteps.

Jenara Roundsky was found dead by a friend last week at a local hockey rink, Canadian media outlets reported. And on Tuesday, the Wapekeka chief declared a state of emergency, asking for immediate support from Ontario officials.

“Our people are getting tired,” Wapekeka spokesman Joshua Frogg told the Toronto Star. “We need help, boots on the ground, people properly trained to assess and determine and help as needed – we don’t need 11 and 12-year-olds on the front lines trying to save their friends.”

Earlier this year, after Wapekeka uncovered the suicide pact, Canada’s health ministry pledged to provide Wapekeka with $380,000 in emergency funding, but has so far only sent $95,000, according to the Toronto Star. That money has already been used up to hire new mental health workers.

A spokesman for the national health ministry told the Toronto Star the $95,000 payment was the amount it owed for the fiscal year 2016-2017, and the department will provide Wapekeka with $380,000 in annual “enhanced funding” until 2019. The money will finance four youth mental health workers who are already in place on a rotating basis, according to the department’s statement to the Star.

But Wapekeka leaders maintain that they need more immediate assistance to deal with the aftermath of the recent deaths. They have identified almost 40 adolescents – about 10 percent of the community’s population – that are considered to be at risk of suicide in the wake of the recent pact.

“This is just devastating for the community,” Frogg told the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), adding that its leaders are “stressed to our bones” trying to help its youth.

“It is concerning and it is sad that this child fell through that crack,” Frogg said.

For this small, remote community, the loss of three children is crushing. It also opens up wounds from a previous suicide epidemic during the 1990s.

Wapekeka was one of many indigenous communities in northwestern Ontario targeted by convicted pedophile Ralph Rowe, an Anglican priest and Boy Scout leader who would fly into small reserves and seek out adolescent boys. Rowe was convicted in 1994 of 39 counts of indecent assault on 15 boys ages 8 to 14. In 2006, he faced dozens of additional charges. Rowe, considered “one of Canada’s most prolific pedophiles” is estimated to have abused 500 victims, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported. He served a total of five years in prison.

Between 1989 and 1999, 15 young people committed suicide in Wapekeka, CBC News reported.

The epidemic roiled the community but prompted its leaders to develop a Survivors of Suicide program and host annual suicide prevention conferences. Wapekeka’s efforts forged the community into a “leader in suicide prevention,” as the Guardian reported, and for years it managed to take hold of the crisis.

But after extensive attempts to “stabilize our community,” as Frogg told APTN, “Now we’re just back to where we were.”

And the suicide crisis is not limited to Wapekeka. From 1986 to 2016, 500 suicides were reported across 49 First Nations in northern Ontario. More than 270 were children and adolescents between the ages of 10 and 20. The 49 communities, part of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, are home to a total of about 45,000 people.

“We stay up late at night worrying about our children,” Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said in a speech, the CBC reported. “We are so programmed to always be in this crisis state and that shouldn’t be.”

Indigenous youth are about five to six times more likely to commit suicide than non-aboriginal youth in Canada, according to a report from Canada’s health ministry, Health Canada, which described the aboriginal suicide rate as “alarming.” Those numbers are similar among Native American populations in the U.S.

Many First Nations adolescents experience isolation, poverty and a lack of basic amenities, on top of the continuing effects of being marginalized by society.

About 150,000 indigenous children were forced from their communities and placed in residential schools nationwide during the 19th and 20th centuries to assimilate them into mainstream society.

“The ripple effect of trauma is powerful in First Nations communities, most of which are close-knit and small in population,” the report said. “Every suicide thus has a direct effect on many community members and this may account for the tendency of suicides to occur in clusters.”

Wapekeka’s leaders tried to keep this ripple effect from affecting Jenara, the third 12-year-old girl who made the suicide pact. They flew her to a specialized residential home outside of the community until a few weeks before her death.

“There was no plan of care, there was no safety plan for her,” Frogg told CBC News. Wapekeka’s chief and council protested the decision to allow her to return without an arrangement for continuing treatment. The child and family services agency that treated her disputed this, telling CBC News that a safety plan was indeed in place.

Jenara had been living with her grandparents, APTN reported. Her father committed suicide in 2011 when she was only 6.

In a statement posted to Facebook, Jenara’s grandparents said she was diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder.

“Her actions were on an impulse and went ahead to do things as if without no thought,” they said.

“We do not blame anyone for the loss of our granddaughter,” the statement continued. “The services that she was given through different agencies, everyone did their best to help our granddaughter while she was with us.”

Wapekeka officials, however, are less hesitant to point fingers and ask the federal government for more assistance. They worry that the death of Jenara will trigger other children – such as the 12-year-old who found Jenara dead – to hurt themselves.

“That stays with you for a long, long time,” Frogg told APTN. He recalled what it was like to find a person hanging many years ago.

“It stays with you forever,” he said. “It never goes away. Can you imagine a child?”