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Indigenous leaders to press federal government on services in northern community

Indigenous leaders to press feds on Wapekeka

OTTAWA — Indigenous leaders are set to press the federal government on Thursday over services available in Wapekeka First Nation — a tiny community in northern Ontario mourning the suicides of two 12-year-old girls.

The reserve school remains closed while crisis teams work on the ground following the deaths of Jolynn Winter and Chantel Fox earlier this month, community leaders said in a statement Wednesday.

"I can't believe I had to bury my daughter," said Fox's mother Sandra. "It was so hard to say goodbye."

The reserve identified several children who were secretly planning suicide several months ago, but the community was denied funding from the federal government, said community spokesperson Joshua Frogg.

"These children could be alive today and their deaths preventable," Frogg said. "Our community was turned down by the government and now two are dead."

In a statement late Wednesday, Health Canada offered its "heartfelt condolences" to the community.

"Health Canada recognizes the devastating impact that the tragic loss of young lives can have and is committed to supporting Wapekeka as they respond to this crisis."

The department said it told community leaders last fall that it would pursue funding opportunities in the future to assist Wapekeka in increasing the number of mental health workers in the community.

"Funding has been identified to assist the community and Health Canada has been working over the last several days with First Nations and provincial partners to support the community's vision for youth mental health programming."

Wapekeka is an Oji-Cree fly-in community with a population of about 430 people located 600 kilometres due north of Thunder Bay.

A news release from the community Wednesday said Wapekeka has been wrestling with the legacy of convicted pedophile Ralph Rowe — an Anglican priest who travelled to a number of First Nations and committed sex crimes in the 1970s and 1980s, leaving an estimated 500 victims in his wake.

The latest deaths demonstrate the need for a national suicide strategy to help protect Canada's indigenous children, said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, whose organization represents 49 First Nations communities in Ontario.

Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press

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