LA RONGE, Sask. — The federal government is putting up $1.2 million over two years for more mental-health support in two northern Saskatchewan indigenous communities.
Health Minister Jane Philpott says the money will allow expanded culturally safe mental health and addictions services for the Peter Ballantyne Cree National and Lac La Ronge Indian band.
Philpott made the announcement in La Ronge where six girls between the ages of 10 and 14 from the community and surrounding area committed suicide last fall. She said she met with a group of indigenous leaders from the community including a band councillor who talked about suicide within his own family.
"When you hear these stories and you realize how deeply this affects an entire family and an entire community it is devastating," she said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
The federal government recognizes the seriousness of mental-health issues facing indigenous people and is committed to supporting them, she said.
Philpott said there is no question that root causes of the suicide crisis must be addressed. All the "mental health teams in the world" will not solve the issue in isolation, she added.
"As we went around the table today, I heard so many stories about what has gotten the community into these circumstances. It is literally decades-worth of inequity."
Last fall, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the suicides in northern Saskatchewan a tragedy and said the federal government is committed to working with indigenous communities.
The chiefs of the two First Nations say they welcome the funding, but there is a long way to go to address the crises faced in their communities.
"The crises we have faced in our communities has taken a toll on many of our families, and we recognize that healing process will continue on for some time," Chief Tammy Cook-Searson of Lac La Ronge Indian Band said in a release.
"The trauma runs deep and there is still much more work to do ahead. As we work on our larger mental health strategy, we look forward to continuing our discussions with the federal government to advance our plans for a holistic wellness centre that can have lasting change for this generation and those to come."
Chief Peter Beatty, of Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, called the funding a "positive step" but said long-term strategies are needed.
The Liberal government's budget last month promised $118 million over five years for community-driven mental-health programming for First Nations and Inuit.
Tremendous work is required to provide healing to communities, Philpott said, noting she also heard Wednesday from residential school survivors who have experienced repeated traumas within their families.
"It is a very complex web of circumstances that have led to the mental-wellness challenges here and therefore it will require a very comprehensive, collaborative response to change the circumstances," she said.
— With files from Kristy Kirkup in Ottawa
The Canadian Press