Mr. Speaker, as we all know far too well, suicide has a terrible impact on Canadian families. Because of this impact on our communities, it is important for us as members of Parliament to take time to discuss suicide in the House. I thank the hon. member for Kitchener—Conestoga for bringing forward this bill, which it is an honour for me to debate today.
As we consider the issue of suicide and related mental health challenges, such as mood disorders and depression, I encourage all members to remember that these issues deeply affect thousands of Canadians on a daily basis.
Some would argue, perhaps with good cause, that the often overwhelming challenges presented by mental health issues and suicide are experienced most acutely in certain first nations and Inuit communities. We know that some first nations and Inuit families and communities can lose hope in the face of widespread social and economic dysfunction, poor health outcomes and the loss of children and youth through suicide, drugs and alcohol.
This fall, aboriginal leaders like Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and Elisapee Sheutiapik, the President of the Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, spoke of the high rates of suicide in their communities and added their voices to the call for action against suicide.
As National Chief Atleo and President Sheutiapik told us, the health statistics for first nations and Inuit paint a challenging picture. For example, the gap in the life expectancy between first nations and Inuit on the one hand and the general Canadian population on the other is 6 to 13 years. There are higher rates of binge drinking and alcohol-related hospitalization among the former. The number of alcohol related deaths among first nations is almost double the national rate across Canada. First nations people also report using illegal drugs at more than twice the rate of the non-aboriginal Canadian population.
Perhaps the most distressing statistics are related to aboriginal youth suicide rates, which are among the highest in the world. Suicide rates of first nations youth aged 10 to 19 are over four times the national average, and rates for all Inuit are over 11 times higher than the rest of Canada. Unlike suicide rates for non-aboriginal peoples, rates of aboriginal suicide are highest among youth. Indeed, injury and suicide are the leading causes of death for aboriginal youth.
It is important that we recognize and acknowledge that one major root cause of these health disparities and mental health addiction challenges in aboriginal communities, whether it be suicide, high rates of mental health issues or alcohol and drug abuse, is the Government of Canada's past policies including the policy on Indian residential schools.
We recognize that for more than a century very young children were often forcibly removed from their homes and placed in Indian residential schools to isolate them from what was thought to be the inferior influences of their families, traditions and cultures. These children were not allowed to practise their culture or to speak their languages. Some were physically and sexually abused, and all were deprived of the care and nurturing of their parents and communities. Not surprisingly, this tragic social disruption has had negative impacts on the health and mental well-being of generations of first nations and Inuit. While some may think that the residential school experience is part of Canada's distant past, we are still seeing negative impacts from it today.
High suicide rates among aboriginal youth are particularly pressing, considering that aboriginal youth under 20 years of age account for over 40% of the aboriginal population. The physical and mental health of these youth represent, very literally, the future of aboriginal communities. Helping aboriginal young people and preventing them from committing suicide is a must. It must continue to be a public priority.
I am pleased to report today that this government is taking action on aboriginal youth suicide. In March 2010, the hon. Minister of Finance tabled a budget that included $730 million in funding for aboriginal health programs and services, including $75 million to extend the national aboriginal youth suicide prevention strategy to 2015.
This strategy was developed based on a global review of evidence-based suicide prevention approaches. It utilizes expertise from the review led by an advisory group on suicide prevention and its final report entitled “Acting on What We Know: Preventing Youth Suicide in First Nations”. It also includes the expertise of Inuit communities with respect to how best to support Inuit youth and communities and prevent suicide. In short, the strategy incorporates the best available evidence with respect to aboriginal youth suicide prevention.
This evidence demonstrates that culturally-based services are important for positive health outcomes among first nations and Inuit communities, their families and individuals. Research has also shown a strong link between cultural identity and youth suicide prevention. Furthermore, the evidence indicates that the greatest impact on youth suicide prevention comes from community-driven programming, developed according to each community's unique needs and strengths.
That is why the national aboriginal youth suicide prevention strategy supports communities to develop, implement and evaluate projects that respond to their needs. While these community-based approaches are unique, most focus on enhancing protective factors, including family and social supports, cultural ties and youth leadership.
The strategy supports over 150 community-based suicide prevention projects that target youth with an elevated risk of suicide. The strategy also supports communities to respond when there is a suicide-related crisis. In many instances, this includes partnering with provinces and territories to address community needs.
For example, Health Canada is supporting a multidisciplinary mental health wellness team on Vancouver Island to respond to a cluster of youth suicide attempts and rampant alcohol and drug abuse. This team includes the expertise of mental health clinicians as well as the cultural expertise of local community elders. By engaging youth, families and community members, the mental wellness team has supported stability in the community over a period of three years. During this time, no suicide attempts or completions were reported.
In addition to cases such as these, I am pleased to report that the national aboriginal youth suicide prevention strategy is demonstrating other measurable successes. For instance, community-based projects are reporting increases in the number of youth who are referred to mental health services, which is an indication that they are receiving the support they desperately need.
There are other tangible results stemming from the national aboriginal youth suicide strategy. The stigma surrounding suicide is decreasing. Community members have become more willing to openly discuss this crucial issue. Communities have reported that their youth have a greater sense of hope and optimism, as well as more pride, discipline and confidence. Local mental health workers have increased confidence and reduced feelings of powerlessness when intervening in times of crisis. These are remarkable strides that are building the self-confidence of aboriginal youth and building the communities' capacity to address mental health issues.
Despite the progress I have described here today, we still have much work to do with our partners to address the high rates of aboriginal youth suicide and to improve the overall health and well-being of aboriginal Canadians.
We are working with our partners at the provincial, territorial and community levels to provide access to effective, sustainable and culturally appropriate health programs and services that contribute to the improved health status of first nations and Inuit.
One clear example of this is the B.C. Tripartite Framework Agreement on First Nation Health Governance signed in October 2011 in partnership with the First Nations Health Council and the province of British Columbia.
This agreement will see the creation of a first nations health authority in B.C., allowing first nations cultural knowledge, values and models of healing to be incorporated into the design, management and delivery of health programs and services.
A day long gathering was held a few weeks ago in Ottawa between the Crown and first nations. This government continues to show a commitment to working with first nations and Inuit partners to improve the life of aboriginal people in Canada, and I am proud to be a small part of these important initiatives.
As we move forward, we will continue to invest in suicide prevention programs in order to support communities, families and individuals to tackle the complex and wide-ranging issue of suicide. I suspect that there are not many Canadian families who can say that they have not been affected by the tragedy of suicide.
Therefore, I encourage my colleagues on all sides of the House to offer their support for the bill and their thanks to the hon. member for Kitchener—Conestoga for bringing it forward.