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Globe editorial: Indigenous youths keep taking their own lives, and we keep looking away

In the space of six days last week, four Northern Ontario Indigenous youths made the grim decision to end their lives.

The situation is a terrible shock to the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which numbers less than 50,000. It is an unspeakable tragedy for the affected families. It is a scandal.

And yet nothing about it is unusual.

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In 2015, a spate of suicides hit the northern Innu communities of Quebec. Last year, there were the six young girls who took their own lives in Saskatchewan in a single month. This past winter, two 12-year-olds in Wapekaka, Ont., did likewise.

The suicide rates among Indigenous Canadians are among the very highest in the world. Suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading causes of death among Indigenous people under 45.

Read that last paragraph again.

If these were kids living in suburban Toronto – or indeed anywhere within easy television satellite truck distance of a major city – it would be the only news anyone talked about, and a national crisis. There would be commissions of inquiry, marches on Parliament Hill.

Around the time the four Nishnawbe youths were staring into the abyss, much was being made of the palpable, visible anger expressed by several aboriginal leaders on the occasion of the 150th Canada Day.

They have every right to be furious; everyone in this country should feel their rage, and share it. But the simple fact is most Canadians don't – which is infuriating in itself.

As the Indigenous commentator Robert Jago has noted, "The Native death toll in any given year is as bad as the U.S. saw in a decade of fighting for civil rights."

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If that comparison sounds overwrought – and it shouldn't, because it's a fact – then perhaps it's worth considering the words used by Bernard Lefrançois, the Quebec coroner who investigated the 2015 Innu suicides.

"I believe and see evidence that the great fundamental problem lies with the 'apartheid' system into which Aboriginals have been thrust for 150 years or more," he wrote.

The treatment of First Nations in Canada is nothing short of a national shame.

But while we're arguing on national television about protests, counter-protests and whether Cornwallis collected Mi'kmaq scalps, or debating symbolic gestures like the renaming of National Aboriginal Day or the Langevin Block, children are dying.

So what can be done?

Approaching the problems of Indigenous communities with greater urgency would be a start.

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Suicide is a complex phenomenon, but the risk factors are well established. The taking of one's own life it is intimately linked to broader social pressures and living conditions. There is no mystery to any of this.

Unsafe drinking water, the various on-reserve housing crises, and deep psychological and emotional distress can't be dealt with overnight, or even in a summer. But that's no excuse for not trying.

The federal government is committed to the file, at least in its pronouncements and the priority it places on reconciliation. But all too often these days, symbolism is being substituted for action.

At the same time that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was visiting a protest tepee on Parliament Hill, his government's lawyers were using narrow points of law to fight compliance orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to adequately fund aboriginal child welfare.

Ottawa budgeted $635 million in early 2016 to address that specific problem, but the largest sums won't be spent until after the 2019 federal election.

The difficulties facing First Nations communities are multifarious, need varies greatly. Billions are spent each year trying to solve a dizzying assortment of problems. Just this year, Ottawa says it spent $900,000 in emergency assistance to Wapekeka, a fly-in community of 430 that had an effective suicide prevention program until 2014, when funding ran out.

It was in 1993 that a suicide crisis in Davis Inlet, a Labrador Innu community that has since been evacuated, captured the nation's attention. In 1995, Neskantanga First Nation in Ontario issued a boil-water advisory. It is still in effect.

One has to wonder how much progress has been made in the intervening years, because what we're doing clearly isn't working.

If it's a case of more money, spend it. If it's a case of hiring more mental-health and social workers, do it.

Most of all, we must treat this as an emergency, and act accordingly. There is no higher priority than the lives and safety of Canadian children.

No one must be allowed to look away.

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