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Northern Massacre

December 29, 2009 permalink

Along the coasts of James Bay and Hudson Bay thirteen teenagers have died by suicide this year, a large loss in a region with less than ten thousand people. Deep in the Toronto Star article is the common factor: The main source of support for youngsters is the Payukotayno James and Hudson Bay Family Services in Moosonee.



Swamped by teen suicides

13 northern Ontario youngsters killed themselves last year. Another 80 tried. Desperate social workers struggle to cope – and wonder how many more have to die before they get the help they need

By Tanya Talaga Queen's Park Bureau, Published On Mon Dec 28 2009

Mike Wilson
Funeral director Mike Wilson, right, is shocked by the number of teen bodies his firm has had to prepare for burial this past year. (Dec. 24, 2009)
Thomas Trapper
Thomas Trapper, 17, was the first of nine teenagers funeral director Mike Wilson's firm has had to prepare for burial in 2009.

Timmins funeral director Mike Wilson remembers when the first teen to commit suicide in the James Bay area came under his care last January.

To Wilson's horror, the body of Thomas Trapper, 17, was the first of nine teenagers his firm would prepare for burial in 2009 from the isolated communities dotting the coastof James Bay and Hudson Bay.

"As a funeral director with 25 years experience I thought I had seen it all, but, to be blunt, the trail of teenaged bodies that has passed through our facility in the past 11 months has been sickening," Wilson told the Star. "Our firm handled nine of these cases and I must say that I'm shocked that it took this long for someone in the media to bring this to light."

In mid-December, a Star investigation focused on the epidemic of teen suicides in northeastern Ontario. In the last year, 13 teens living in remote communities along the James and Hudson Bay coasts and throughout the isolated north have committed suicide – all by hanging. The youngest to die was 14.

Tragically, another 80 have tried to take their lives.

The youth living in the province's poorest communities – Moosonee, Moose Factory Island, Attawapiskat, Fort Albany and Kashechewan – face a host of problems.

Most of the areas are plagued with drug addiction, high unemployment and poverty. Locals complain there is little for the kids to do.

A new youth centre on Moose Factory, built mostly by the province, sits largely empty because of a lack of cash to run programs, something the province says is the federal government's responsibility.

"There were times the bodies came in in twos," Wilson said in an interview from Timmins. "I have never seen the likes of this before. It is amazing, the native kids we bury."

Wilson picks up the bodies at the airport and then takes them to either Sudbury or North Bay for an autopsy. He then takes them back to Timmins, prepares the bodies for burial and sends them back to their communities via a chartered plane for a traditional burial.

"This is a sad statement on our society, when this is happening and nothing is done," Wilson said. "If this were happening somewhere else, people would be screaming."

The main source of support for youngsters is the Payukotayno James and Hudson Bay Family Services in Moosonee, which is struggling with both the suicide epidemic and a financial crisis.

There is a lack of mental health clinics and psychologists in Moosonee, where Payukotayno is based. In addition to child protection duties, Payukotayno struggles to counsel teens and families.

Payukotayno has urgently requested government funding for four suicide intervention workers. The government has promised to look into the request.

The province has known for at least three years there are big problems trying to protect and care for at-risk kids who fall under the realm of northern First Nations children's aid societies. A report prepared for the government in 2006 concluded that Payukotayno and Tikinagan – two agencies north of 50 degrees latitude – need a $24.6 million baseline funding increase just to provide the same level of service to northern children as those in the south receive.

The Ontario government has yet to specifically address that report.

However, Children and Youth Services Minister Laurel Broten did come to Payukotayno's aid this month with a $2.3 million emergency boost. Before the funding came through, Payukotayno planned to lay off all 120 staff members on Dec. 16 because the agency was broke. The money ensured the agency could stay operating until end of March 2010.

"It is unfortunate it always takes a crisis to get the province to respond," said New Democrat MPP Gilles Bisson (Timmins-James Bay). "In this case, 13 kids have committed suicide. It is the only time we hear from these guys."

Broten and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Brad Duguid are to head north in January to meet with First Nations leaders and those working at the children's aid agencies.

Duguid is hoping to instil self-confidence in aboriginal teens in remote communities through sports. He will launch the Play Program in 2010, a joint government and corporate venture to bring hockey to poor, isolated towns.

Source: Toronto Star