By Lauren La Rose
TORONTO (CP) - The suicide-plagued Kashechewan First Nation is a "community in crisis" that requires Ottawa's immediate attention, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine said Tuesday.
"We were aware of this crisis for some years now, and I thought we had a commitment from government to deal with the crisis," Fontaine said following a speech to delegates at the Assembly of First Nations national housing and water policy forum.
"We just have to press their case as urgently as we can. I'm just not sure what will motivate the government to do the right thing here."
Media reports suggest that in January alone, 21 young people in the beleaguered northern Ontario community - including a nine-year-old - tried to take their own lives.
Kashechewan made headlines in October 2005 after hundreds of its residents were evacuated to several Ontario towns and cities because of drinking water contaminated by E. coli bacteria.
The evacuation prompted the federal and Ontario governments to scramble for solutions to the issue of dirty drinking water in First Nations communities.
But more than a year later, Kashechewan and many other aboriginal communities in Ontario continue to struggle with poorly designed water plants or overly modern systems that are considered too costly to staff or maintain.
Kashechewan residents have had a tough time readjusting to life back on the reserve because they face the same dire problems as they did before the evacuation, said Deputy Chief Philip Goodwin.
"It's been a difficult time for everybody since returning from evacuation," he said. "The most challenging was people getting into alcohol problems and drug-related problems."
The community had no idea a 20-year-old man who killed himself last month was mentally or emotionally distressed, Goodwin said.
"I don't know really know what's going on with individual people, but a couple of young people that I've been working with seem to have problems trying to deal with their problems, and they don't have trust in other people."
"That's why they're unable to express anything - there's just no one that they trust."
Kashechewan youth have been offered one-on-one counselling as well as suicide intervention workshops, but the community doesn't have a safe house for individuals who need to be on a round-the-clock suicide watch, Goodwin said.
"Emotionally, they don't really have anything to do in the community. There's a lack of facilities."
A report released in November by federal government adviser Alan Pope made a series of recommendations for Kashechewan, including moving the reserve to within the city limits of Timmins, Ont. - 450 kilometres from its current location on the shores of James Bay.
Pope said the move would improve the lives of the community residents, particularly young people, by giving them access to high schools and post-secondary education, as well as economic opportunities and employment.
But in a speech Monday to the International Congress on Ethics in Gatineau, Que., Fontaine spoke out against such a move, saying that First Nations have been subject for too long to policy that amounts to "social engineering."
"To suggest that it's better that Kashechewan - or any of those northern communities in Ontario - would be better off if they were living in Timmins ... or any urban community, that's not true," he said.
"People shouldn't be forced to be moved from their homelands anywhere in the world, never mind Canada. That's social engineering - that someone else has decided what is best for you, what will make a better life for you. And that is not the way it should be done."
In Tuesday's speech, Fontaine said 87,000 new housing units are needed to address the issue of overcrowding in many First Nations communities.
Many houses also need to be upgraded or replaced due to age or poor construction, he added.
To address the issue, Fontaine is recommending the creation of a First Nations housing institute, an initiative he said is "long overdue."
"Right now, the way housing is delivered in too many of our communities, it isn't our people that benefit to the extent that they ought to - it's the outside community, and we simply must do better."
"Doing better means taking full control over housing, it means exercising jurisdictional control of our housing programs, it means putting our people completely in charge."
The Assembly of First Nations has also launched a human rights complaint in an effort to get more than $100 million a year from the federal government for child-welfare services.
"We will be taking one course of action that we don't necessarily believe we should be forced to, and that is taking the case of children in care to the Canadian Human Rights Commission," Fontaine said.
"Clearly we're at a stage where answers are desperately needed, and they don't seem to be forthcoming."
Copyright © 2007 Canadian Press