Gas sniffing youth from Pikangikum First Nation. (Bernard Weil Photo)

If there is one criticism I have during this election campaign, it’s the lack of engagement of youth voters and by extension, the lack of attention to First Nations youth issues.

Did you know there are places in this province where the suicide rate is many times higher than anywhere else in the world?  In northern Ontario, communities like Pikangikum, Kashechewan and others face an unimaginable crisis.

In Pikangikum, over the past fifteen years, over 40 young people have committed suicide shattering families and their community.  In 1999 alone, six children in the same Grade 7 class at the Pikangikum school took their own lives. Dozens more attempt suicide, many unreported. This is a First Nation community of only 2,700 people.

In January 2007, 21 young people in Kashechewan, including a nine year-old, attempted suicide.  Every single community member and family is affected by suicide in these communities.

This should be seen as unacceptable by all Canadians.  Addressing this crisis should also be seen as a top political priority during the election.  Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a word of this throughout the election campaign by any party.

Sadly, there are many people who think there is no crisis.  Just like some high profile members of the Conservative Party think there is no poverty in First Nations.  Somehow, they must feel that these sad scenarios are a figment of our collective imaginations.  That social advocates and Indian Chiefs are pulling the wool over the eyes of Canadians.  They think that billions of dollars are getting to the communities, lining the pockets of Chiefs and Councillors.  Many people actually think that First Nations people are actually better off than the average Canadians.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  The suicide is real.  The poverty is real.  I’ve seen it with my own eyes.  Billions of dollars are not reaching these communities, and are not being intercepted by some all seeing, corrupt Band official.  If you were to step foot into these communities, the reality of poverty, dispair and suicide will come rushing into perspective.  All you have to see is the graves of the children that their parents bury in their backyard.  Yes, their backyard.

Imagine for a moment that just one of these scenarios took place in, let’s say, downtown Calgary.  Six twelve and thirteen year-old children, all from one class, all taking their own lives.  It’s almost unimaginable.  You can bet that this would be front page news story for weeks.  There would be a Royal Commission and Coroner’s inquests.  Politicians would be up-in-arms.  This would be the top election issue, bar none!!

It’s truly sad that this is only a reality only for remote communities.  It’s not a part of the national discussion.  And it’s not part of the election campaign.

All parties and all politicians need to speak to First Nations youth issues.  First Nations youth need to be included in a national discussion.  Solving this situation requires public outrage and empathy for these families.  But most of all, solving this crisis requires action.  We need a comprehensive strategy to support First Nations children and eliminate First Nations poverty once and for all.

First Nations youth need to have hope.  They need, and deserve the same opportunities afforded to all people in Canada.