As First Nations leaders in northern Ontario call for action on health care, youth are demanding more involvement

Young people don’t just want to watch as First Nations leaders across the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) call for action to address decades-old issues — they want a seat at the decision-making table.

The three-day Winter Chiefs Meeting in Thunder Bay, Ontario, this week brought together representatives from across the region to discuss critical challenges facing their communities, including housing, education, climate change and policing.

It was the main item on Thursday’s agenda NAN Health Transformation ProjectThe young people attending the gathering were keen to express their opinions.

“We are here to be heard, not just listened to,” said Walker Atlokan, 25, of Ipamitong First Nation, who is co-chair of the Ushkitisak (All Youth) Council.

He said it is important to include young people in meetings, but there is a difference between representing young people and making them part of the conversation.

Chiefs spent Thursday morning expressing their frustration about the ongoing crises community members face, from access to primary care to mental health support.

Man speaking into microphone on stage.
“It pains me when I hear about the needless loss of life because I feel some of these losses could have been prevented,” says Alvin Fiedler, NAN Grand Chief. (Sarah Low/CBC)

“There are children dying out there every day and we’re sitting here talking about decisions again. What’s that going to do?” asked Chief Alex (Sonny) Pattis of the Matachewan First Nation.

A few weeks ago, NAN Senior Chairman Alvin Fidler called Emergency meeting with regional and federal officials In response to the recent spate of suicides and unexplained deaths. Ontario announced that while no one from the provincial government attended $2.6 million for NAN this week To support mental health and addiction services.

“It pains me when I hear about the unnecessary loss of life because I feel that some of these losses could have been prevented,” Fiedler said in response to Pattis.

“(We) can have all these meetings and write letters, but the work has to happen on the ground at the community level — and I think that’s our responsibility… to support you in the work that you have to do yourself.”

NAN declared a public health emergency in February 2016. Late Thursday, chiefs passed a resolution to declare another health emergency and establish the NAN’s regional First Nations Health Services Ombudsman Office, designed to identify barriers to care and advocate for solutions across the board. Levels of government.

The chairs postponed a presentation on NAN’s Health Transformation Project for several hours, instead spending that time listening to members of the Council of Elders, Women’s Council and Ushaktisak Council.

But Mallory Solomon of Oshaktisak pointed out that the three council members were sitting at tables on the perimeter of the room rather than in the chairs’ circle.

“We have to be in the precinct if you want to hear us,” Solomon said.

Advocating for improved access to counselling

Neskantaga First Nation Chief Chris Moonias invited 16-year-old Siguan Mackay from Bearskin Lake First Nation to speak in his place Thursday morning about the youth suicide crisis.

“We have more children dying by suicide than going to and graduating high school, going to college or doing any normal things that young people might do,” Siguan said in her speech. “Instead, we are vulnerable to loss of culture, intergenerational trauma, and unstable social environments in our communities, all of which impact the mental health of our youth.”

Siguan, a high school student in Thunder Bay, wants community-wide change to improve mental health and addiction support, including improving access to counseling.

Young woman posing for a photo.
Sijuan McKay, 16, of Bearskin Lake First Nation, spoke to delegates about the youth suicide crisis on First Nations in northern Ontario, and called on communities to do more. (Sarah Low/CBC)

“We need better access to mental health resources, not nursing stations that will make you sign a form saying you are not going to commit suicide,” she said.

She also wants to see Bearskin Lake form its own youth council, and for community members to discuss these issues more openly — and not just when there’s a crisis event.

Addressing systemic barriers

Andrea Yesno-Linklater, 21, said she knows what it means to be silenced by people in positions of power. She shared her experience going into nursing school and being told by her clinical preceptor that she would not be a good nurse “because my culture is quiet.”

“That’s when I realized that I was going to have to fight under this colonial education system in order to get to where I wanted to be and be able to help my communities in those capacities,” said Yesno Linklater, who is from New Zealand. From Eabametoong First Nation and also has roots in James Bay.

Young woman smiling as she takes a photo.
Andrea Yesno Linklater, 21, belongs to Eabametoong First Nation and says she wants to defend her community against colonial regimes. (Sarah Low/CBC)

She ended up switching to psychology and became the first person in her family to graduate from college.

In joining the Oshkitisak council, Yesnu Linklater said she wants to push for systemic changes, including decolonizing the education system so that more young people can achieve their goals.

“Just reinforce that in them while they are young, so they don’t lose hope when they grow up.”

Atlokan said youth councils are a great way to encourage inclusion. He suggests that communities have a youth spokesperson who can attend larger meetings such as a council of leaders to ensure that youth input is always part of discussions on issues that affect their well-being.

the Annual Oshkitisak Youth Gathering It is also held in Thunder Bay. It started on Thursday and continues until Monday.


If you or someone you know is struggling, here’s where to get help:

This guide is from Center for Addiction and Mental Health Explains how to talk about suicide with someone you’re worried about.

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