[Witness speaks in Cree
Tansi. Thank you.
I'd like to acknowledge the Algonquin land. I bring greetings from my people in Pimicikamak.
My name is Catherine Merrick. I was elected by the Pimicikamak people to be the chief of the Pimicikamak Nation in accordance with Pimicikamak law. I do not come here as a chief of an Indian band in accordance with your system of law. It is not a customary law in accordance with the Indian Act. I have been invited to speak on a very sensitive issue, the issue of suicide, which stems from hopelessness and despair, an issue that stems from 150 years of oppression from your policy of cultural genocide. Suicide is one of the mitigating factors stemming from this policy.
As a primary spokesperson and the leader of the Pimicikamak Nation, I will summarize in a nutshell where I come from, who I am, and who I represent. For you to understand who we are, where we come from, and what we need to do to survive, we must jointly examine what our best and collective interest is to co-exist in the spirit of our treaty relationship.
First is the need to understand our Pimicikamak Okimawin government.
In Pimicikamak territory, the crown, including its crown agency, Manitoba Hydro, needs to understand the environment that it's creating for the Pimicikamak people and their experience. Its system continues to impose genocidal policies and inflict harm on the health of Pimicikamak traditional territory and people. This infliction has traumatized our people and the land the Pimicikamak are spiritually connected to.
Suicides are one of the effects of this trauma. The concept of trauma engages a holistic view that may aid in building a new relationship. An ongoing national trauma afflicts the Pimicikamak people. It began almost 140 years ago.
Entered into in good faith to protect the settlers, Treaty 5 was soon revealed to be a genocidal fraud. Like other indigenous peoples in Canada, the Pimicikamak have endured governmental policies that were designed to exterminate them as a people and to separate them from their territory. Plainly, this trauma did not begin with Manitoba Hydro.
The Pimicikamak have survived better than some of Canada's indigenous peoples. Thanks in part to the situation of its territory, some of the worst inflictions largely passed it by. Then, in the 1960s, Manitoba Hydro built the Kelsey dam. It's both a dam and generating station and began to ruin Sipiwesk, the ancient heartland of the Pimicikamak people. The Jenpeg hydro development project, located only miles upriver, permanently destroyed our lands, our hunting territories, our water system, our traditional foods, our traditional medicines, our ways of life, our culture. In essence, the project stripped us of our ability to preserve our identity and our way of life, the sources of our wellness for thousands of years.
As I've mentioned, the elders tell us that there were virtually no suicides prior to the arrival of Jenpeg hydro development project. We have lost 40 individuals to suicide, most of them young people who would have had a long life. From this development, a modern day treaty was made between Canada, Manitoba, and Manitoba Hydro to mitigate and compensate for the losses we sustained. This agreement has still not been honoured.
Pimicikamak is a self-governed indigenous nation. The word “Pimicikamak” means the place “where a lake lies across the river”. Okimawin is our government. Its predates the European settlement of Canada. Pimicikamak became part of Canada by its representative, Té-pas-té-nam, signing Treaty 5 at an historic ceremony in Norway House in 1875.
Suppressed by the federal policy of cultural genocide and federal laws for more than a century, the Pimicikamak Okimawin reawakened in the early 1990s. Pimicikamak Okimawin is a grassroots, people-driven government based on traditional Cree democracy.
Some may confuse Pimicikamak with the Cross Lake Band of Indians, the first nation, or even regard it as a new name for the band. In reality, the two are as fundamentally different in almost every way, as, say, Canada and Winnipeg are.
Some of the main constitutional and legal differences between them include the following.
In the last decade, the Pimicikamak's unwritten constitution and other customary laws have been updated to meet modern needs. The Pimicikamak laws are made by the people, in contrast with Canadian laws, which are made by the crown in Parliament in Ottawa. The authority of its people to make their own laws has always been and has never been surrendered or lost. The Pimicikamak Okimawin is a corporate and political body comprising the executive council, chief in council, the elders' council, women's council, the youth council, and the secretary to the councils.
The four councils meet as a single entity and determine national policy by consensus. The executive council, with its chief in council, is a modern innovation. It is responsible for the executive function of managing the day-to-day affairs of the nation. It is does so by consensus. Its decisions are governed by national policy. Through the executive council, national policy also applies to the Cross Lake band of Indians.
The Pimicikamak have been working hard to revise their traditional government and culture. This will enable any hope for survival. The current system imposed by Canada continues to threaten our survival. It's paternalistic and legalistic. Steps for our survival include the introduction of the 2003 national policy of finance administration and the 2016 transparency project. We are taking these steps to account for how our elected officials on council conduct our nation's business and how they manage its affairs and those of Cross Lake.
Since the Indian Act, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada has presided over third world conditions of poverty, corruption, and human despair. Their system has left us no option but to raise the bar of accountability. We need the ability to govern our own accountability to our people without legal terms compelling us to be beggars in our homeland at the feet of Indian Affairs. Our national policy will hold the crown to high standards of accountability for their conduct and actions.
Breaking free from this colonial system, the Pimicikamak Okimawin has accomplished most of the reforms that the Minister of Indian Affairs is hoping to set in motion in proposed federal legislation.
Historically, the Pimicikamak have been systematically suppressed by the Canadian policy of cultural genocide. The 150 years of systematic race-based standards are evident in the crown's track record in failing to honour the treaty relationship with indigenous tribes like the Pimicikamak. That treaty was regarded as a sacred covenant between Britain and the nation of tribes.
After entering into the treaty relationship in 1875 with the crown in right of Britain, the Pimicikamak and their ability to govern themselves were quickly suppressed by the creation of the state of Canada and the paternalistic Indian Act, which created Indian bands, band memberships, and chiefs and councils for those bands.
Where is Pimicikamak? Cree culture centred on our vast Pimicikamak traditional territory that enabled the ancestors of the Pimicikamak people to adapt to change and to survive since time immemorial. It is the only known indigenous nation on record whose territory was recognized the surveyor general of Canada in March 1877.
Cross Lake Band is the epicentre of this territory where most of our Pimicikamak people live. They are both citizens and band members. Nikikonakos is the name of our ancestral village, now referred to as Cross Lake, Manitoba. This community of 8,400 people lives on Pimicikamak territory.
The strategic objective of our Pimicikamak is to survive as a people, which is a serious challenge in the face of continuing federal efforts to extinguish the nation, and environmental and spiritual damage.
We have historically suffered from cultural genocide, the intentional destruction of a people as the people, distinguished by its not necessarily intending to kill individuals. Again, suicide is one of those key mitigating factors stemming from the cultural genocide. Many indigenous people are at the edge of the cliff of the mountain of oppression, and attempted suicides continue and hopelessness still thrives.
I have invited the Prime Minister to witness first hand the atrocities created by your Indian Act in the midst of our last suicide crisis. He has failed to respond to my invite. This is evidence of the failure of the crown and all its agents to honour this relationship. The current problem is that despite multiple government apologies, both the federal and provincial levels of government continue to actively pursue these policies while proclaiming their desire for a new and respectful relationship.
I am Chief Kathy Kishiqueb from Ojibways of Onigaming.
In my language, I am [Witness speaks in Ojibwe], Standing Brown Buffalo, and Kishkaminsi is my doodem.
Thank you for the opportunity to stand before this committee today to share the story of my community. The Ojibways of Onigaming are one of 28 Anishinaabe communities in Treaty 3 territory. Our community has a membership of approximately 780, and 50% live in the community. On October 30, 2014, our community declared a state of emergency in regard to suicide following two youth suicides and having recently experienced three other funerals related to suicide within a span of six months. We have not and will not end our state of emergency until there have been changes in access to mental health services and support for community wellness and community healing for our people.
In the following year, the community also lost adults and elders related to self-neglect and self-harm due to alcoholism and many chronic health conditions. Historically, over decades our community has experienced a significant number of losses due to suicide, self-harm, and violence, including multiple homicides. Our staff continues to respond to suicide ideation, threats, and attempts on a weekly basis. In the past three months there have been at least 20 known suicide attempts or threats in our community where we have had to facilitate some type of immediate response, such as setting up safety plans, crisis counselling, hospital visits, and police intervention. The majority have been youth under 20 years of age. We have identified at least 25 families in our community who could benefit from family counselling and family mediation services. These supports would help facilitate family healing, enhance parenting skills, and help rebuild healthy and thriving family systems.
In the past year, our team has interacted with approximately 70 adults who have reached out for support and/or received crisis support. Our team has attempted to connect them to adult mental health services, but clients are met with a variety of barriers in accessing supports, such as distance and cost associated with travelling outside the community, personal motivation, fear, lack of family and peer support, availability, wait lists, and lack of culturally safe options. We have noticed that many of our community members are not comfortable accessing services outside the community or with someone they do not have existing relationships with or identify with. Clients who have experienced trauma get tired of telling their stories over and over to new faces.
A significant gap of ours is the lack of a community-based certified mental health counsellor. Community-based mental health counselling could offer many opportunities such as being present and visible in the community, which gains the trust of community members, provides opportunities for immediate clinical interventions, and allows for accessibility to care and continuity of care.
In the past year, over 100 Onigaming children and youth have accessed community-based counsellors at least twice. Our school mental health counsellor currently holds a case load of 40 children and youth she sees on a regular basis, and in many cases, weekly or bi-weekly due to the high needs. When our children and youth are reaching out and seeking help, they are walking into systems of inadequacy.
It is important to understand the reality of the community situation. People were not reaching out actively and seeking help. People do not have the means to travel outside the community. People are using unhealthy coping strategies such as drugs and alcohol and are not ready to face their grief or trauma to begin their personal journey to healing.
Our approach has had to be very proactive and creative in order to reach these high needs such as being available after office hours to deal with after-hours situations and allowing open-door policies not restricted to appointments. We have created an environment where it is easier for people to reach out for help, but our services are feeling the pressures of the needs, and we need more capacity to respond.
A critical part of our approach was a shared management system. In post-crisis, we had a group of 50 on our list. As a team, we would do regular check-ins with each of them through home visits and/or planned activities that targeted these 50 youth.
We are working to create an environment that promotes life where our children, youth, families, and elders know we care and where suicide is no longer an option.
We clearly see that suicide is a symptom of trauma, unresolved grief and loss, exposure to violence, addictions, disconnection to culture and land, and the poor social and environmental conditions that have existed in our community for decades. Solutions to prevent suicide have to be holistic and multi-pronged. Approaches need to have combinations of clinical, community-based, traditional, family-based, and system-focused solutions.
Community-based solutions must not only focus on increasing access to mental health supports but also look at the social determinants of health, including more resources for prevention, cultural and land-based healing and activities, improved housing conditions, and employment opportunities.
Over the past two and a half years, we have been applying a unique comprehensive community-based and community-driven approach to preventing suicide and in supporting community wellness and healing. Areas of priority include improved access to mental health services, youth engagement and resiliency, family resiliency, community engagement, connections to culture, and healthy work environments.
Our approach with our youth involves a team of staff, including the school mental health counsellor, customary care counsellor, and crisis coordinator. The team coordinates a shared management system of families at high risk with regular updates and recommendations to chief and council. Through this system, we have regular contact with clients. The team works together to target high-risk groups through direct counselling, after-school programming, and cultural activities. With the additional capacity of an adult mental health counsellor, we would be able to do more work with parents and support the families in healing.
Engaging youth is an instrumental part of the strategic plan. The youth identified seven key areas: one, opportunities for recreation; two, youth employment; three, access to a broader education—
Thank you for your presentations. I certainly can relate to a lot of what you're saying. I'm from the Northwest Territories.
We've been on this study for some time now on the issue of suicide, and it's still shocking to hear the number of people who are attempting to take their lives. It's still shocking to hear the level of despair that's in our communities. I often wonder if it would be in order, to bring more attention to the issue, for us to collaborate and start putting the numbers out there on a national level. But I'm always advised by people who are professionals or in that field that this may lead to copycats. A lot of people might start to mirror what's happening in some of the communities.
In Nunavut, as Hunter can attest, we had 28 suicides over the summer. I had a suicide last weekend in my community. Labrador has had eight since November. So the crisis is not slowing down, the crisis is actually escalating, and it's very concerning.
We heard in other testimonies many of the comments that you have made. I certainly agree that the oppression that the aboriginal people have suffered over the last 150 years is at the root of what is happening in our communities. We certainly need to start looking at becoming self-governing. My observation has been that communities that are self-governing seem to do the best. But there are other issues in our communities, including cultural disconnect and abuse. I was home last weekend. I witness a lot of violence in my community—I'm probably one of the few people who still live in a small aboriginal community, as an MP—and a lot of it is as a result of the residential school trauma, which I suffered.
The question I have is around trauma, and more specifically sexual abuse. I didn't hear you mention sexual abuse, but we have issues in our communities. Residential school, lack of housing—a lot of things lead to sexual abuse. I wanted to know if that's something you would attribute to some of the causes of the current levels of despair and suicide.
Maybe you could both spend a few minutes talking about it.
Thank you for that question.
With regard to the destruction of a land where our people, our ancestors, have grown, we have to protect our lands and our waters. That is one of the fundamental things that our elders have taught us to do.
Within our time, we have seen the destruction of our lands and the ways of our people. To this day, we rarely have any trappers who go out on the land to sustain their families, to provide for their families in that way. Now we have the social impacts of all of that. Where the man was responsible for his family and able to provide food and provide clothing, that has been taken away.
Eighty per cent of my nation is unemployed. In the fundamental agreement that was signed 40 years ago, it states that it was to eradicate mass poverty for my people. Today, we are the poorest of the poor. We should be one of the richest nations in Manitoba from the results of the electricity that is provided to the United States. We should not be poor.
Our people should be very proud of who they are as aboriginal people, but we're not, because we don't have what this young man, our young leader, has explained here, such as the wants and needs of our people for recreational facilities. These are the things that every community should have. Every community should have recreational facilities. Every community, every nation, should have libraries.
Those things that are taken for granted in urban centres, we don't have them. There are communities that don't even have water in this good country of ours that we call Canada. We haven't asked for anything over and above what any other Canadian has or that any other Manitoban has or asks for as a Manitoban. We have to beg all the time for the things we want. That should stop. It should stop today.
Thank you very much for coming today and presenting this testimony.
We've heard this heart-wrenching testimony from a number of different communities that have come to testify on this issue.
I want to pick up on something that MP said earlier about the role of parents. I found that the question was a bit—no offence—simplistic, from the standpoint that we've talked about residential schools, the generations of destruction of the cultural and historical heritage and the literal ripping out the souls of indigenous peoples, and the breakdown of the family unit itself, the nuclear unit of the family. If you've taken children away and raised them in residential schools, how do those children become parents when they've not had parents themselves?
It's not simplistic to say that, yes, parents need to be a part of the education system, but I think it needs to be a more holistic process. Yes, they are a component, as elders are a component, and as educators are a component, in that they all need to be a part of education.
Would you agree with that, Kendall, Catherine, and Kathy?
Good morning, members of the panel, Madam Chair, ladies and gentlemen.
My name is Kendall Robinson. I am a member of the Pimicikamak Cree Nation. I work and reside in Cross Lake, Manitoba.
If it is okay with the panel, I would like to explain why I am holding this eagle feather today at this gathering. This is an eagle feather that the late Elijah Harper, formerly a member of Parliament, gave to my late grandfather Etienne Robinson when he was chief of our nation some years ago. I hold it to honour the memory of the youth who have fallen at their own hands in recent times across the nation, including the youth we lost in our own community. We are speaking for them today. I am thinking of them today; I am thinking of their families; and I am thinking of their communities.
I am a member of the youth council of the four traditional councils of Pimicikamak. During the afternoon I work as an educational assistant at the middle years school. In the evenings, I organize recreational activities for the youth as a youth activities coordinator. As a member of the youth council, I also assist with youth activities in the community. In my spare time, I am a wrestling coach for Team Manitoba and also for our local high school. Team Manitoba will be competing in Toronto in July in the North American Indigenous Games, which our youth are all excited to attend. I graduated from the Cross Lake cadet program some years ago.
I am pleased to appear today, along with our chief Mrs. Merrick and Lisa Clarke, as a witness and presenter to this important panel that is studying ways to prevent suicide in our indigenous communities.
As you may have heard from our chief, our nation declared a state of emergency last winter after facing a rash of suicides. I was reassigned in my community to help with the youth intervention programs that followed and to work strictly with the youth in the organization of recreational activities. This is my 12th month as a youth activities coordinator.
Thank you, Madam Chair and members of the panel.