In April 2013, a series of teenage suicides has flooded the Canadian press. Rehtaeh Parsons’ death in Nova Scotia, at the age of 17, after being allegedly raped and bullied was a horrific shock both locally and nationally.
Much less talked about was a double suicide and subsequent state of emergency declaration that Neskatanga First Nations people endured in northern Ontario, following 20 suicide attempts this year in their community.
Although I do not seek to compare two wholly tragic situations, the media coverage and reaction of the government is a blatant disregard of one of them.
Nobody is blaming the Nova Scotia community for Rehtaeh Parsons’ premature death. No-one has said she should have used the suicide hotline, her school counsellor or other resources.
But the proven suicide epidemic in First Nations communities receives that treatment. Suicide and attempted suicide rates are higher for Aboriginal girls than boys, and together make up 20 per cent of the national average.
It was recently announced that Rehtaeh’s mother, Leah Parsons, would be given a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to discuss changes to the Criminal Code.
Rehtaeh Parsons’ mom should be able to talk about cyber bullying with Harper, but the moms from indigenous communities across Canada should also be getting the same privilege. They need the chance to discuss the issues that led to their children’s suicide: lack of clean water, safe housing and acceptable schools.
Last April, the National Aboriginal Health Organization’s funding was cut completely from the national budget. It was the single health program that worked to support Aboriginal health concerns, especially suicide and infant mortality.
Health Canada reported in 2012 that suicide occurs five to six times more among Aboriginal youth than others.
Young people make up 75 per cent of Neskatanga’s population. They face issues of sexual abuse, high rates of drug addiction, and no access to mental health services or addictions counselling.
The community of Neskatanga is one of over 100 living under a ‘boil water advisory’ in Canada. This means that they have been recommended to boil water before drinking it to make sure it is safe.
Residual trauma and a language and culture rift as a result of the residential school system, in combination with isolated communities, have made an already marginalized Aboriginal youth population, even more so.
The media coverage of recent suicides in Canada differs so greatly, perhaps Harper doesn’t feel the same obligation to react to one the way he does the other. It is up to Canadians, and the press to treat every tragedy, especially a young one, with the same and equal principles of human rights.
The international media must put as much pressure on the Canadian government to face their longstanding human rights concerns as much as the sensational ones – it is easy to ignore silence.
Every young death should be treated as not only a warning, but also a lesson.