Coroner, First Nations urge B.C. to act on high number of youth deaths

By The Canadian Press
November 15, 2017 - 5:12pm

VICTORIA — Too many Indigenous young people are dying tragic deaths in British Columbia, and a coroners' death review panel is calling for a series of steps to improve their health and wellness.

Paul Sam, a First Nations Health Authority representative for the Coast Salish people, said at a news conference Wednesday when the panel's report was released that it hurts to see so many young people die.

"Our work is just beginning. We all feel the pain of those families. We are developing partnerships as we go, as a health council, as a health authority. We have to move on from here."

Sam said the youth are dying from drug overdoses, suicides and alcohol abuse.

The report recommends Indigenous-focused initiatives that incorporate traditional healing practices, develop alcohol harm reduction strategies and offer increased access to housing for Indigenous youth.

The joint B.C. Coroners Service and First Nations Health Authority death panel review found Indigenous youth in B.C. died unexpectedly at a rate almost two times higher than non-Indigenous youth over a six-year period ending in 2015.

It makes a series of broad recommendations to B.C.'s health, education and children's ministries and to Indigenous health agencies to adopt and implement programs over the next year to reduce barriers to services for Indigenous youth and build connections to family, community and culture.

"In all cases, we have found that involvement in community cultural activities can save lives by restoring pride, self-worth, a sense of purpose and overall health and wellness," the report says.

The review covered the deaths of 95 Indigenous young people between the ages of 15 and 24 during the period between January 2010 and December 2015.

"Although the reasons First Nations youth and young adults die are similar to their non-First Nations peers, there are continuing disparities in injury and mortality rates for First Nations young people," the report says.

It found the accidental death rate for Indigenous youth in B.C. during the review period was 1.9 times higher than non-Indigenous youth based on census data from causes identified as accidental, suicide, homicide or undetermined.

Accidental deaths in motor vehicle crashes, drownings and overdoses accounted for 60 per cent of Indigenous youth deaths, while suicide was responsible for 32 per cent of the deaths.

Almost 25 per cent of the Indigenous youth who died were parents of young children, the report says.

Dr. Shannon McDonald, deputy chief medical health officer of the First Nations Health Authority, said during the release of the report at B.C.'s legislature that the review did not include recent statistics from the province's opioid overdose crisis, which she acknowledged has hit Indigenous communities especially hard. 

McDonald said the review is a start towards building support systems for Indigenous youth after years of missed opportunities.

"Every step forward towards prevention, towards connecting young people to their homes and families and communities, towards a more responsive health-care system is a step forward," she said.

Recommendations to the First Nations Health Authority include encouraging communities to apply for wellness grants to incorporate traditional healing, to review alcohol education and develop Indigenous harm reduction activities specifically for alcohol.

For the children's ministry, the report calls for increased access to housing for Indigenous youth and earlier and easier access to prevention-focused mental health services by March 2018.

Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said the joint review helped her agency better understand cultural diversity and work towards preventing future deaths of young people.

"It has really been the heroic work of the First Nations Health Authority in telling the story and in sharing experiences that people across the province have had and have suffered," she said.

The B.C. government said in a statement that it will take time to consider the steps it needs to take to address the recommendations in the report in partnership with the First Nations Health Authority.

"Each of these deaths is a tragedy, and is a loss deeply felt by family, friends and their community. It is critically important that we work with First Nations, all Indigenous Peoples and partners to identify actions that will have the greatest impact, so First Nations youth can get the culturally safe support and services they need," the email statement said.

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