OTTAWA –A mystery donor has stepped in to provide about $380,000 for youth mental health programming in a fly-in First Nation community struggling with youth suicides.
The community of Wapekeka, about 600 kilometres due north of Thunder Bay, garnered headlines this month following the deaths of 12-year-olds Jolynn Winter and Chantel Fox.
Community members who described last week having to dig through the permafrost in order to bury the girls now say there is hope amid the heartbreak, thanks to a generous donation they say was motivated by the tragic story.
“We are overwhelmed with this act of generosity and cannot express how grateful we are that this donor is stepping in to help our people,” Wapekeka First Nation Chief Brenna Sainnawap said in a statement.
“Our community is in a crisis and there is an urgent need to get this program back in place as soon as possible.”
Sainnawap and Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler say the donor has asked to remain anonymous.
In July, the community sent a request to Health Canada for about $376,000 for mental health supports amid fears of a local suicide pact among young girls, but the money never flowed.
Health Canada has now set aside funding to assist the community and is working with First Nations and provincial partners in order to provide the necessary support.
“Last week, after reviewing the matter with Health Canada officials, the minister of health directed the department to fund without delay Wapekeka’s request for additional community support in response to the mental health crisis, as well as to facilitate longer term healing,” the department said in a statement.
Health Canada officials contacted Sainnawap on Jan. 17, the department said, noting it is aware an anonymous donor has offered to provide funding to the community.
Fiddler, who represents 49 First Nations in northern Ontario, said the private donation “speaks volumes” about the state of the bureaucracy.
He raised his concerns directly with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week in Ottawa during a meeting that also included a Wapekeka spokesman and Mushkegowuk Council Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon.
“That’s something that I told the prime minister last week: we don’t need another study, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Fiddler said in an interview.
Health Canada was fully aware of the situation in Wapekeka before it worsened, Ontario NDP MP Charlie Angus said Wednesday, a longtime advocate on indigenous issues. “Thank God someone stepped up to help these kids,” he said.
Wapekeka is one of a number of First Nations that still bear the scars of convicted pedophile and former priest and Boy Scout leader Ralph Rowe, convicted in 1994 of sexually abusing children on remote northern Ontario reserves in the 1970s and 1980s.
Last Friday, the Anglican Church said it was working on an apology for Rowe’s crimes, and Fiddler said Wednesday he wants one from the Boy Scouts of Canada as well.
In a statement, Scouts Canada called Rowe’s crimes “horrendous” and noted that it issued a formal public apology in 2011 to any former Scouts who suffered harm at the hands of people in its organization.
Not good enough, Fiddler said, who wants Rowe’s victims to get a direct apology of their own.
The abuse was facilitated in part “because of the fact he wore a Boy Scout uniform, and the fact he organized Boy Scout groups to be established in the communities,”he said.