Could eviction changes help fix a broken system or lead to good tenants being unduly turfed? Depends on who you ask

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Last year Mark Farquharson and his young family were almost evicted. After helping organize strikes against an above-guideline rent increase at his building in Parkdale, the landlord, Nuspor Investments, served him with eviction notices. He was accused of abusing staff and hindering the safety of other tenants. He denied the accusations, and instead accused the landlord of retaliating.

The case went through the hearing process at the Landlord and Tenant Board, and last November the adjudicator sided with Farquharson and dismissed the landlord’s application. Farquharson, who says his family had been under intense pressure throughout the lengthy process, was relieved but made an ominous prediction about the future of renters.

“With Doug Ford in power, it’s going to be even easier for landlords to force people out and raise the rents,” he said at the time of the decision.

Fast forward to Tuesday this week, the Star reported that the Ford government was already looking for ways to speed up eviction processes in Ontario — notably by reducing the waiting periods for eviction notices and using private bailiffs to remove tenants.

The news, which the province in internal government documents portrayed as an effort to make more rental housing available, has sparked strong reactions from both sides. Tenants are worried about being thrown out into the red-hot and increasingly unaffordable housing market, while landlords welcome the proposal as a step toward fixing a “broken” process.

While Farquharson can see the reasoning behind the proposal — “the more people that get evicted for their wrongdoings, the more available homes and rentals for better tenants,” he said — he’s concerned about the lack of protection for good tenants who could get caught in the “greedy” system as housing prices continue to skyrocket.

Farquharson said he pays about $1,200 for a one-bedroom apartment, and knows a similar room could go for around $2,000 in the current market. Generally, it is therefore in a landlord’s interest to try and evict longtime tenants in order to make more money on units, he said.

“It’s in their best interest to put applications out to evict people for very minimal situations,” he said, noting a lot of tenants just give up and leave instead of going to the board to fight the evictions.

“This is a vicious loophole and the tenants are on the losing side big time.”

Read more:

Tenants occupy damaged Junction-area house rather than risk losing affordable housing

Ebony Menzies, a Toronto west-end resident who has been evicted twice, called the proposal to ease the eviction process “unfair and downright cruel.”

She said the practice of “renovictions” — in which a landlords pushes tenants out for housing renovations and increase rent prices afterwards — is already rampant, and the province’s new proposal to speed up the eviction process is only going to make the situation worse for tenants.

“It makes me very upset and angry,” said Menzies, who is also a member of affordable housing advocacy group ACORN Toronto. She said more evictions will send more people into homelessness and cause even more problems for a shelter system that’s operating at full capacity.

“I don’t think anybody is ready for that,” she said. “I think it’s a poorly thought out idea. They should instead invest more in community housing.”

In a statement to the Star, the Federation of Rental-Housing Providers of Ontario (FRPO) said it welcomes the move and will continue to consult with the province in addressing the housing supply crisis.

“The current Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) process is fundamentally broken and does not work for either landlords or tenants,” said spokesperson Danny Roth.

He said the board often doesn’t meet its timelines to process applications, taking months longer than in other provinces. In places such as Toronto, even enforcing an order after the board has issued it can take an “additional two or three months due to capacity issues,” he said.

Joe Movassaghi, who owns a condo he rents out in downtown Toronto, said he welcomes the proposal and hopes it will help him get out of a situation he’s been stuck in for the past three years.

He said his tenant has been putting the unit on Airbnb, “sometimes to 20 or 30 people,” despite the contract stating subleasing is not allowed. He took the issue to court, but found out that there’s no law against it in Toronto.

“I actually have a lot of stress and anxiety because of it. My hands are totally tied as a landlord,” he said, noting he’s also been given rent cheques that have bounced.

He hopes the proposal can make it fair for him as an investor to have an option to evict a tenant if they misbehave or breach the rental contract.

“I respect the rules around rent control but it has to be fair for me as an investor,” he said. “Otherwise I want out now so I can sleep at night.”

At Queen’s Park, NDP MPP Suze Morrison expressed alarm at the revelations in the Star about the government’s proposal to expedite evictions.

“At a time when the rising cost of housing is making it harder for Ontario families to find a place they can afford, and keep a roof over their heads, Doug Ford’s Conservatives are focused on helping landlords toss tenants out on the street faster,” said Morrison (Toronto Centre).

“Everyday Ontarians need more affordable places to live — not more crackdowns on renters.”

With files from Robert Benzie

Gilbert Ngabo is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @dugilbo

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‘Humans are suffering’: Axing of basic income pilot project leaves trail of broken dreams

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The first detailed look at the 6,500 Ontarians who signed up for the basic income pilot project paints a portrait of people living in poverty whose dreams of a better life have been crushed by the Ford government.

Results of the government’s initial survey of participants, obtained by the Star, were compiled early last July, three weeks before the newly elected Progressive Conservatives broke their election promise and killed the initiative.

Jodi Dean, left, is one of about 1,000 Hamilton residents participating in Ontario's basic income pilot project. She is shown with her husband and daughter as part of Humans of Basic Income, a photo exhibit created by photographer Jessie Golem sparked by the Ford government's decision to cancel the initiative last July.
Jodi Dean, left, is one of about 1,000 Hamilton residents participating in Ontario’s basic income pilot project. She is shown with her husband and daughter as part of Humans of Basic Income, a photo exhibit created by photographer Jessie Golem sparked by the Ford government’s decision to cancel the initiative last July.  (JESSIE GOLEM PHOTO)

The move has sparked numerous petitions, charges of unethical treatment of human research subjects and a court challenge to be heard Jan. 28.

According to the baseline survey of participants, most were experiencing stress, struggling to pay rent and having trouble affording healthy food when they signed up.

“Humans are suffering,” said participant Jodi Dean, a Hamilton mother of three. “It shows, clearly, there is a need for help, yet it is ignored. It makes me very sad.”

Dean obtained the survey under a clause in the participation agreement that gave everyone who enrolled in the project access to generalized data, if they request it. The survey is the only research the government conducted before the project was cancelled.

Read more:

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Ontario’s basic income pilot project to end March 31

Under the $150 million, three-year program, about 4,500 participants in Hamilton-Brantford, Thunder Bay and Lindsay have been receiving annual payments of up to $16,989 for individuals and $24,027 for couples, with a $6,000 top-up for people with disabilities. The goal was to see if unconditional financial support would boost employment opportunities, stabilize housing and improve health for people living in poverty.

Another 2,000 people, enrolled as a “control” or comparison group, also completed the baseline survey, but did not receive the basic income.

Payments are scheduled to end March 25, barely 18 months after participants began receiving the extra money.

Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod, who scrapped the scheme July 31, said Ontario can’t afford a basic income because annual costs would top $18 billion if it was extended to all low-income residents.

The preliminary analysis, compiled by an independent evaluation team led by St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, shows just over half those enrolled were working, running a business or looking for a job when they signed up. More than 13 per cent were working two or more jobs but still unable to escape poverty, according to the survey.

Of the 47 per cent not in the labour force, almost two-thirds were ill or disabled, 14 per cent had personal or family responsibilities and 7 per cent were students, the analysis shows.

More than 80 per cent of participants reported moderate to severe psychological stress. And almost 60 per cent ranked their life satisfaction as a five out of 10 or lower, according to the report.

“This survey … reveals the hopes of a courageous group of people who sought to improve their lives by enrolling in the basic income pilot project,” said Tom Cooper of the Hamilton Roundtable on Poverty Reduction.

“All this will be lost if the project is not allowed to continue,” he added.

The roundtable, which is posting Dean’s copy of the analysis on its website Tuesday, has been studying it to dig deeper into the numbers.

Hamilton participant Laura Cattari, 49, who has a developmental disability and uses a wheelchair due to chronic pain and fatigue, works 10-hours a week at the roundtable.

She says the $6,000 in annual basic income payments she receives has brought her income to the poverty line and allows her to handle household emergencies without having to skimp on groceries or worry about paying her bills.

Laura Cattari, 49, has a developmental disability and uses a wheelchair due to chronic pain and fatigue. She works 10-hours a week at the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction. The $6,000 in annual basic income payments she receives has brought her up to the poverty line and allows her to handle household emergencies without having to skimp on groceries.
Laura Cattari, 49, has a developmental disability and uses a wheelchair due to chronic pain and fatigue. She works 10-hours a week at the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction. The $6,000 in annual basic income payments she receives has brought her up to the poverty line and allows her to handle household emergencies without having to skimp on groceries.  (SUPPLIED PHOTO)

Cattari, who has been analyzing the government survey as part of her job, says difficulties getting people to sign up for the project mean the snapshot isn’t a demographically accurate reflection of poverty in Ontario. For example, 81 per cent of participants identified as white, 88 per cent are Canadian-born and 99 per cent speak English.

But Cattari says the survey reflects poverty trends, especially when it comes to health care. Almost 38 per cent of participants had unmet health needs and cost was a factor more than 80 per cent of the time, Cattari noted.

“We know people aren’t getting the medical help they need, whether it is prescription drugs, dental care or therapy of any sort,” she said.

For Dean and her husband, who have used the basic income to help cover the cost of gas and hospital parking for her daughter who has a disability and requires frequent medical care, losing the support has been a blow.

“It means we will struggle. It means more stress,” Dean said from Montreal where her daughter is having surgery.

“We had a bit of a break and were able to concentrate on things like our daughter’s health without that worry of paying the bills,” she said. “Now we are back to worrying. Simple things like parking and gas to get to the hospital shouldn’t be a worry or force you to make choices on bills or health.”

The baseline survey provides a glimpse of the challenges participants faced at the beginning of the project. But the Ford government refused to conduct followup interviews to gauge the project’s success, said Sheila Regehr, chair of Basic Income Canada.

“The government cancelled this project without evidence,” said Regehr, whose organization is conducting its own survey.

“Fortunately, basic income participants are sharing stories about how it has truly transformed their lives and could do the same for Canadians across the country,” she said.

The Star and other media organizations have documented how participants have been able to eat healthier food, buy warm clothing, move into stable housing and enrol in college. Humans of Basic Income, a moving photo exhibit by participant Jessie Golem, shows how the basic income was improving the lives of 63 fellow participants.

In addition to the court challenge, mayors of the pilot communities, international researchers, the Hamilton and Thunder Bay Chambers of Commerce, 900 medical professionals and the CEOs of 120 Canadian companies have called on both Queen’s Park and Ottawa to continue the research project the remaining two years.

Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb

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Video from Toronto shelters shows ‘inhumane’ conditions, indicates shelter system is broken, advocate says

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Inside one of Toronto’s warming centres, dozens of small beds are placed alongside the walls, with homeless people covering themselves in Red Cross-issued blankets.

At a 24-hour respite centre that’s supposed to host 100 people, many rows of small beds are lined up in a dimly lit hallway. Some people are curled up in their beds, others are milling around. There’s indistinctive noise from all around, and at some point someone somewhere seems to be banging on the door.

A video taken from inside the city’s respite centres and shelters shows conditions in which homeless people are living on a particularly cold evening in January 2019. This clip has been shortened from the original 6-minute version.

“Someone in there?” a voice asks later, as a note indicates one of four washroom stalls is out of order.

That’s part of what is contained in a six-minute video secretly filmed this past weekend offering a glimpse inside various drop-in centres and respite and warming locations as the city grapples with housing the homeless population amid extreme cold weather.

Street nurse and longtime homeless advocate Cathy Crowe said the “inhumane” conditions observed at the sites indicate how the shelter system is broken.

“We are now in a position where we are housing people in places that are not shelters,” she said of the city’s overnight drop-in, respite and warming centres, where more than 1,000 people — young and old, male and female — are currently being housed.

“That’s the only place they can go, and they are going to be there for weeks and months on end.”

In addition to existing shelters, the city has opened a number of 24-hour respite sites and drop-in centres to help homeless people who need shelter during the extreme cold weather period.

Crowe described the “shame” of living in a “dismal-looking” and crowded hallway with not enough space for people to securely store their belongings. Bathrooms and showers are scarce, and a number of them are out of order.

Some of the occupants are in wheelchairs, use walkers or have others medical issues, making it difficult for them and the rest of occupants to feel properly cared for, she said.

A secretly filmed video shows conditions inside various Toronto drop-in, respite centres.
A secretly filmed video shows conditions inside various Toronto drop-in, respite centres.  (YouTube)

“There’s a lot of coughing, a lot of tension,” said Crowe, noting the city’s response to the homeless issue has created “a second-tier of shelter that’s not really proper shelter.”

She said it is important for the public to see videos and images from inside the centres to understand the magnitude of the issue.

“I think they’re used to seeing pictures like that after a catastrophic thing like hurricane Katrina or in other countries a tsunami or a mass of fire or power outage,” she said.

Cathy Crowe stands beside a homeless memorial at The Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto on January 12, 2016. Crowe, a street nurse and longtime homeless advocate, says the “inhumane” conditions observed at the city's  drop-in centres indicate that the shelter system is broken.
Cathy Crowe stands beside a homeless memorial at The Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto on January 12, 2016. Crowe, a street nurse and longtime homeless advocate, says the “inhumane” conditions observed at the city’s drop-in centres indicate that the shelter system is broken.  (Randy Risling/Toronto Star)

Crowe and other advocates will join some city councillors on Tuesday to lobby for the ongoing homelessness issue to be declared an emergency, and seek for more help from all levels of government and other organizations. Four homeless people have died on the streets so far this year, including Hang Von, 58, who was struck by a garbage truck driver last week.

Mayor John Tory has been reluctant to officially declare an emergency situation over the homeless issue, something Crowe called “upsetting.”

“He used the word ‘urgent’ but refuses to use ‘emergency’ or ‘crisis’ or ‘disaster,’” she said. “I think he is extremely out of touch with the overall situation and continues to stigmatize the issue by blaming it on either mental health issues or refugees, and it’s just so wrong.”

Tory’s spokesperson Don Peat said the city’s own report on street needs assessment last year showed 32 per cent of respondents had a mental health issue and 27 per cent had an addiction issue, while 40 per cent were refugees or asylum claimants.

“The Mayor is being honest with the public about the underlying issues putting additional pressure on our shelter system and his commitment to working with city council, city staff, community organizations, and the other governments to tackle homelessness and the issues that contribute to homelessness,” he wrote in a statement.

Gilbert Ngabo is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @dugilbo

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Edmonton winter warming bus helps city’s homeless chart a route to survival

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A broken stick leads to broken hearts for Canada’s world juniors

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When a Canadian is on the losing end of a hockey game at any level it’s never easy.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a peewee house-league final in Cole Harbour, N.S., or on the bigger stages like the world junior tournament, the world championship or an Olympic gold-medal final.

So imagine how the 2019 Canadian world junior team feels after its heartbreaking 2-1 loss in overtime in Vancouver on Wednesday. The team had this one in the bag.

There were only 46.4 ticks left on the clock in the third period when, with Canada up 1-0, a puck deflected off the left shin pad of Finland’s Aleksi Heponiemi and past Canadian goaltender Michael DiPietro for the tying goal.

But Canada still had a couple of glorious chances to take the game in overtime.

WATCH | Finland defeats Canada in overtime:

After tying the game with 46 seconds left in the 3rd, Finland scored after Canada failed to convert on 2 game-ending opportunities in overtime, knocking the hosts out of the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship in Vancouver. 2:23

Captain Maxime Comtois was awarded a penalty shot early in the extra period after Canadian defenceman Evan Bouchard was hooked on a breakaway. But Comtois, chosen to take the shot by Canada coach Tim Hunter under new rules this year, was turned aside on his low blocker attempt.

A few shifts later Canadian first-line centre Cody Glass feathered a cross-ice pass to defencemen Noah Dobson. The native of Summerside, P.E.I., had an open net staring at him, but his stick broke on his one-touch attempt.

The unexpected turn of events gave Finland an odd-man rush the other way. Unlike Canada’s missed opportunities to close the deal, Finnish defenceman Toni Utunen, who just happens to be a Vancouver Canucks prospect, finished off Canada at his future home with a blast that deflected off the stick of Glass and over the left shoulder of goalie Michael DiPietro.

The Finns, all of a sudden, were off to the semifinals. They have a date on Friday with Switzerland, who pulled off a shocker earlier in the day with a 2-0 quarter-final win against Sweden in Victoria.

« We gave it our best, » said Comtois, who played through a painful shoulder injury. « Sometimes you don’t get the bounces in your favour. »

Hunter selected Comtois to take the critical penalty shot because he was the team’s best shootout guy in practice. But it didn’t work out, which it usually does when Canada hosts this holiday event. In the previous 12 times Canada has played host to this tournament, Canada has won five gold medals, five silvers and two bronzes.

Canada’s Maxime Comtois, right, misses a penalty shot on Finland goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen during Finland’s 2-1 overtime win on Wednesday. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

But Canada never found its groove in this tournament. It was especially poor on the power play, going 0-for-3 in this game and scoring only three times in 18 man-advantage situations in its five games.

Finland might have enjoyed a slight edge in play in this game, but both teams had opportunities to salt this one away. Finland was foiled by DiPietro — often. 

The Canadian goalie, also a Canucks prospect, won plenty of fans in his future home. The Canucks selected DiPietro in the third round a few weeks after he helped the Windsor Spitfires win the 2016-17 Memorial Cup. 

Late in the second period, after a series of stellar stops, the crowd gave the Canadian goalie a standing ovation and chanted his name. This brought DiPietro’s mom to tears. 

« It was game that was played well on both sides, » DiPietro said. « I’m at a loss for words. You feel you’ve let your country down, but you also feel you’ve let your teammates down.

« It just didn’t work out. »

The second-guessing started immediately after Utunen deposited the winner. Did Hunter choose the right guy to take the penalty shot? Why couldn’t the power play get on track? Why was this team so inconsistent?

The bottom line is that it is not the 1990s or the early 2000s anymore, a time when Canada won five gold medals in a row on two different occasions.

Since 2009, when Canada, with the late Pat Quinn as coach, won its fifth in a row for a second time, five different countries have struck world junior gold. The United States have won three times, followed by two apiece from Canada and Finland and one each to Russia and Sweden. There’s parity in them there hills now.

Who knows? Maybe in a few days it will be Switzerland’s turn.

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This man says Toronto police left him with a broken nose and a serious eye injury. His lawyer wants to know why they didn’t tell the SIU

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Toronto police Const. David Hopkinson, speaking generally on Toronto Police Service policy, said police are expected to notify the SIU as soon as they’re aware that an injury might be serious or when they’re uncertain of an injury’s severity but recognize there’s a possibility it could fall under the SIU’s mandate.

On the SIU’s website, it states they are also to be notified if “a prolonged delay is likely before the seriousness of the injury can be assessed,” so that they can monitor the situation.

SIU investigators interviewed Clarke on Dec. 17. He also filed a complaint with the Office of the Independent Review Director on Dec. 20.

Clarke said police charged him at the Scarborough hospital and released him from custody on a promise to appear in court,

This story is based on police and medical documents provided to the Star by Clarke, from an interview with him in his lawyer’s office and his written account given to the OIPRD.

“Given this case is now under investigation by the SIU and by Professional Standards I am unable to offer any comment on the allegations that have been brought forward,” Toronto police spokesperson Meaghan Gray said.

Once the SIU becomes involved, police typically do not release information on a case. None of Clarke’s allegations have been proven in court.

The knocking began after 8 p.m.

“Somebody was calling, ‘Joe, hey Joe,’” Clarke told the OIPRD. Through the apartment door’s peephole, he said he saw a woman, whom he later learned was a plainclothes police officer. She had a pony tail, and was not wearing identification, he said.

“I thought maybe this was a crazy person,” Clarke, who lives with a cousin in a 10th-floor apartment unit, told the Star. He said he hoped the woman would leave, but the knocking continued, along with more calls for a “Joe.”

Clarke said he went back to the door and heard it being unlocked from the outside. He tried to lock the door, but it was unlocked again.

“And then, she just come in and I see all the police officers pointing a gun at me,” Clarke said.

Clarke said several officers in plainclothes — at least two women and three men — entered the apartment, when one male officer then put his gun in his holster and “just starts swinging,” said Clarke.

In his complaint, Clarke estimates being punched 20 times, including to his head and face, by a number of officers. He said he was down on the floor and recalls being kicked and held in a headlock.

It felt, he told the Star, “like my eye was coming out of my head.”

In his complaint, Clarke said it was while they were punching that the officers identified themselves as police.

He said he recalls an officer yelling, “Toronto police, stop resisting arrest.” To which he said he responded: “I’m not fighting, I’m not fighting,” and said, “I can’t breathe. You’re choking me.”

Clarke said he put his hands behind his back, was handcuffed and seated in a chair. He said “there was another police officer standing up and he had his gun on me, the whole time.” The female officer from the peephole, he said, looked at his facial injuries and said: “Whoa, which one of us did that?”

Clarke said the police — he said he doesn’t know the identities of any of the plainclothes officers — were looking for drugs and the brother of his roommate, who was on probation but had never lived there.

Clarke presented the Star with a copy of the search warrant, which does not list a name.

A police photographer arrived and documented the search while Clarke sat with his injuries.

“After they finished the searching, they say, ‘Oh, we don’t have him in custody no more. Take the handcuffs off and just wait. The paramedics are coming.’ And I was sitting there waiting on the paramedics,” Clarke said.

Clarke said he was seen by medical staff at The Scarborough Hospital who determined the eye damage required reconstructive work that would have to wait for morning, when a plastic surgeon would be on shift.

After about two hours at the hospital, Clarke said two plainclothes officers whom he did not recognize from the apartment search told him he was being charged with obstructing and resisting a police officer. He said the officers then asked him to sign a release form that meant he would not immediately have to go to the station to be booked or held for bail.

In his complaint, Clarke said police told him if he didn’t sign, they would take him to the station and his eye damage could become worse. Clarke said he signed after more than an hour.

Clarke was due to appear again at a police station to be fingerprinted and booked on the obstruct and resist charge, and has a first court appearance on Jan. 11.

Clarke said he had a first surgery in the morning after the incident and may require a second. He said he was also treated for a “nasal fracture.” According to a doctor’s report, he reported no change in vision in his left eye at the time, but he said that has since changed.

“I can’t see things closely, so it’s, like, foggy, and there’s a lot of pain,” Clarke said, adding he is suffering from headaches and doesn’t think he can see well enough to drive a car. Followup appointments with his doctor and an ophthalmologist are coming, he said.

Clarke said he has not returned to his apartment, fearing someone might let themselves in. “It’s kind of scary,” he said. He doesn’t think he can return to any kind of work for now and is now looking at going on social assistance.

In a recent report into Toronto police use of force, the Ontario Human Rights Commission — part of its ongoing inquiry into racial discrimination and racial profiling by the service — found “themes” in a review of SIU director’s reports related to police and Black citizens. In a number of cases, the SIU stated there was a “lack of legal basis” for police stopping and detaining a civilian at the beginning of an encounter, and “laying charges against the civilian that are without merit.”

Singh, Clarke’s lawyer, said he’s concerned he was the one who notified the SIU of the incident — as in the case of an off-duty Toronto police officer charged with beating Dafonte Miller, a Black teen, in Durham. Miller lost an eye in that incident, but it was his lawyer who contacted SIU.

“I had to take the initiative, and I have to thank the SIU for being very open and transparent and moving quick on this,” Singh told the Star. “But how often does this happen, and if I wasn’t offering my services to Mr. Clarke, would he get justice? It’s a huge concern that incidents like this go unreported, and even if they get reported, they go unassisted.”

SIU investigations can takes several months to complete. The SIU director then decides if any criminal charges are warranted.

“These allegations really bother me due to the nature of them, whereby (police are) attending an address for someone who is not wanted by police, they don’t identify themselves as police at the door, and then once they enter the apartment, there’s no attempt to ascertain his identity, ensure safety,” said Singh. “It’s just straight violence, as alleged by Mr. Clarke.”

With files from Alexandra Jones

Jim Rankin is a reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @Jleerankin

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Mother of adult with autism calls Alberta’s support system ‘broken’

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A Calgary mother says she can no longer take care of her grown son with developmental disabilities, and she’s been fighting for years to get the provincially-funded support he needs to live on his own.

Lisa Matthews describes her 24-year-old son, who has autism, as gentle, artistic and fun-loving. But at six feet three inches and 450 pounds, Nicholas Matthews also faces many challenges.

« I’m afraid I’m going to find him dead in his room, » she said.

Lisa says her son struggles with depression and an eating addiction, and he spends most of his time in his bedroom working on art projects.

There have been violent outbursts and he has even attempted suicide.

« For 4½ years, we’ve been begging and pleading to get help to get Nicholas living outside of our house. »

Nicholas Matthews’ parents say they’ve been waiting for a supportive living arrangement for him through Alberta’s PDD program for more than four years. (Submitted)

While they do have funding for help inside their home, the family has been asking the province — through its Persons with Developmental Disabilities program (PDD) — for a supportive living arrangement so Nicholas can live on his own with some help.

But, according to Lisa, they’ve been faced with a barrage of setbacks, including high turnover of PDD staff. Nicholas has had six different caseworkers in four years.

« The system is a mess. There’s too much turnover. There’s too much transition … it’s broken, » she said.

To make matters worse, Lisa and her husband, Art, say they’re now struggling with physical and mental health problems they attribute to chronic stress. Art has heart problems, which required triple bypass surgery a year ago, and Lisa struggles with depression and a health condition that is still being investigated by doctors.

« [I’m] feeling helpless and hopeless because I don’t know where we go from here » she said.

Long waits a growing concern

A decade ago, Lyndon Parakin, executive director of Autism Calgary, would hear from one or two families a year in this situation.

He now hears from as many as five families per month.

« Unfortunately it’s becoming more common, » said Parakin, adding he worries about the toll these long waits for service can take on individuals and their families.

« Sometimes matters get so bad that they’re having to go to the hospital to get some help because there’s risk of harm to themselves and others, » he said.

« It becomes wearing. Your own mental and physical health is at risk, » said Parakin.

Parakin says the province needs to create a better way of transitioning people with autism to different types of care and supports as parents age or are no longer able to cope.

Lyndon Parakin, executive director of Autism Calgary says long waits for supportive living arrangements through PDD are becoming more and more common. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

Province responds

According to the province, 60 to 70 Albertans are currently eligible for, but not receiving services through the PDD program, which is currently under review.

« [It] would not be my experience that things take that long. If the family needs supports, we would be looking to provide supports as soon as possible, » said Roxanne Gerbrandt, executive director of the disability services branch with the department of community and social services.  

She says four years is not a typical wait for a supportive living arrangement.

« How long that takes to find a right match can depend person-to-person based on the uniqueness of their needs or even the complexity of their needs, » she said.

Other factors can also play a role in wait times, according to Gerbrandt, including specific location requests, requirements that a home be on one level, safety concerns, and finding the right supportive roommate.

« Sometimes we can offer family supports that they may or may not choose to accept, » she said.

‘I’m done. I’m so tired’

While it won’t discuss specific cases, it appears the province has a different account of how long Nicholas Matthews has been on the wait list.

In a recent email to Lisa, a government official stressed the PDD team has been working with the family for just over a year to find a supportive living arrangement and that a possible placement was identified earlier this year, but turned down.

According to Lisa, they were concerned the placement wasn’t a good fit and were unable to arrange a time to view the home.

Several hours after CBC News first requested information about their case, the province contacted Lisa about two more potential homes, but she says neither worked out and the search continues.

If a home isn’t found soon she says she may consider a drastic step — dropping her son off at a police station or PDD office.

« [We] can’t continue on the way we’ve been going. I’m done. I’m so tired, » she said.

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Baby Amira was born with a broken heart — her mother is praying for a miracle to fix it

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She is fighting for time to love her daughter.

Ideally years. But she’ll take months. Hours even.

Because Jaiden Cowley knows that every moment with Amira is a gift. It has been since she was born 10 months ago with a broken heart.

Amira is waiting for a tiny, strong new one.

“We didn’t know if Amira would make it to Christmas,” says Jaiden, herself just 19. “I live every day like it could be her last.”

A life-time ago, on her first day working at a call centre in Hamilton (she was saving for college to become a nurse), Jaiden learned she was pregnant. Nineteen weeks into the pregnancy, she got more news: there was something drastically wrong with the baby’s heart. It was a congenital defect.

Some of the doctors suggested an abortion. Or said Jaiden should have the child, take it home and let it die quietly in the first few days.

But Jaiden chose another option — to do whatever she could to keep her baby alive. The baby’s father decided not to be involved.


On February 12, at 39-weeks gestation, Jaiden was induced at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto. A team was ready to whisk the newborn away.

“I pushed her out and she was gone,” says Jaiden, her voice catching. The new mom didn’t get to hold her baby. Or even see her.

Amira — it means princess in Arabic — has Heterotaxy Syndrome. Her heart is on the wrong side of her body. And it doesn’t have all the right parts.

She was 44 hours old when she had her first surgery. Two days after that, she went into cardiac arrest.

“She died right in front of me,” says Jaiden.

Amira was placed on life support in the Cardiac Critical Care Unit, her chest left open so doctors could peer in.

“I saw her little heart,” says her mom. “It was only the size of a grape.”

Amira spent 180 days in hospital. During that time, doctors told Jaiden her daughter would need a heart transplant.

Jaiden was crushed yet again.

“Why is the heart that I gave her not working?” she agonized.

On June 11, Amira was placed on the transplant list, through the Trillium Gift of Hope Registry.

Amira is a strong princess and in August, she moved in with her mom at the Ronald McDonald House near Sick Kids. They have been there ever since, seeing specialists and waiting to dash to the hospital should a pediatric donor heart become available.

Jaiden’s mom and other family from Hamilton visit on weekends.

Amira is abeautiful girl. She is plump and smiley, often sporting a sparkly cloth headband with a big cheerful bow. She says “Mama” and her laugh is music.

Christmas day will be spent at Ronald McDonald House. Jaiden has to isolate herself and the baby from other guests because she can’t risk infection.

Right now, Amira is a Status 3 on the Trillium transplant registry. Only Status 4 recipients are more critical, being on the verge of death.

Another child whom Jaiden met at Ronald McDonald House just got her new heart. She spent 500 days on the wait list.

Pediatric organ donations are a rare commodity. Children just don’t die at the rate of adults and those who do are less likely to have their parents’ consent to be donors. This is why Jaiden is sharing her story. She wants grieving parents to know their donations could save other children. And that a bit of their child can live on.

Over the past five years, 65 patients under the age of one have received an organ transplant in Ontario, according to Trillium. There have been nine organ donors under the age of one.

Organs are matched by size, blood type and other factors, but not age. Therefore donors under the age of one don’t necessarily correspond with the 65 patients under one that received an organ transplant.

As of Dec. 17 there are 11 patients under the age of one on the transplant waiting list.

If Amira gets a heart, she has a good chance of living until she is 10. After that, she will need another heart transplant, doctors say.

That is a lot of agony to go through. There are great risks of complications and Amira will be on anti-rejection drugs forever.

So why do it?

It only takes Jaiden a heartbeat.

“I want to know who she is. I want her to know love.”

A Go Fund Me account called Help Heal Amiras Broken Heart has been set-up to pay for some of her medical supplies that are not covered by OHIP. The goal is $5,000, with about $1,300 being raised so far.

Susan Clairmont’s commentary appears regularly in The Spectator. sclairmont@thespec.com905-526-3539 | @susanclairmont

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WSIB staffers decry chaos caused by ‘broken’ system that’s putting injured workers at risk

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Chronic understaffing, long wait times, and chaotic case management at Ontario’s workers’ compensation board are putting vulnerable accident victims at risk, compromising the integrity of the provincial compensation system, and jeopardizing financial accountability, according to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board’s own employees.

Staff made the criticisms in response to a September blog post by WSIB president Tom Teahen, which solicited feedback on whether the board was making Ontario a safer place to work, improving recovery for injured workers, meeting customers’ needs and acting in a financially responsible manner.

On all four counts, the 60 responses obtained by the Star through a Freedom of Information request, show the answer was overwhelmingly no.

“Accident rates are going up while resolutions to (injured worker) claims are going down,” said one employee. “There are not enough people to process work and queues keep piling up, while people that are disabled from a workplace injury are waiting for someone to get back to them. I find that embarrassing.”

In another post, an employee complained they were “frustrated” by delays faced by injured workers calling the board for help, some of whom have post-traumatic stress disorder. The employee said call wait times could sometimes mount to 20 minutes — enough time for “somebody to give up and take their own life.”

“It is not unheard of that clients complain of waiting in excess of 30 minutes to reach the right person,” said another. “If you can’t help an injured worker who’s (sic) literal livelihood depends on the WSIB within a reasonable time frame, that’s an incredible shortfall.”

The September blog post came in the wake of a new service delivery model — rolled out in July at the board — which aims to make the compensation claim process more effective and “help people recover and return to work quicker.” The change came in response to rising claim duration and recovery times.

Under the new model, injury claims no longer have a dedicated case manager. Instead, callers go into a general pool and are triaged based on the complexity of the case. The idea is that complex claims get more focused attention from experienced staff, while uncontentious claims are processed more efficiently.

WSIB chief operating officer Brian Jarvis said in an interview with the Star last week that the new model experienced some early “bumps on the road,” but said statistics already show 95 per cent of injured workers are now receiving compensation decisions within 10 days, up from 89 per cent in May, and that 60 per cent were back on the job in days, up from 51 per cent.

“We’re trying to help the injured workers that come to us every day who need our help and need our support and we’re seeing examples of how we’re doing better recently than we were prior to making these changes,” he said.

“The improvements were really designed to get the right people getting the right claims at the right time,” he added, noting other positive new changes included giving workers an option to upload documents electronically rather than using fax or mail.

In response to Teahen’s September blog, some board employees expressed skepticism.

“I beg you to look beyond the stats to ask questions about what is not being captured,” said one. “To really listen to what many of us are saying to you on this blog and realize the system is putting some of these workers at risk of being lost within the system.”

Statistics obtained by the Star through its Freedom of Information request, which also sought all records pertaining to the new service delivery model, show average call wait times were up from 39 seconds in 2017 to almost two-and-a-half minutes in 2018. Jarvis said wait times are now under two minutes “on most days.”

Numerous employees complained that losing ownership over claim files meant they had to start from scratch each time an injured worker or an employer called them.

“As all of our telephone conversations are recorded, there is no reason senior management would not (be) able to hear the stress, fear, anger and uncertainty that front-line staff hear every day,” said one employee.

“I continue to see obscenely long claims durations (which, of course, is not financially responsible) and an inability to attend to every claim to provide the service each worker, employer or provider deserve.”

“Please do not add further chaos to an already broken model,” said another.

While numerous employees said there was a need for change at the board, the vast majority raised significant concerns about the new approach — and more importantly, the lack of staff available to make it work.

Staff are “burning out due to the unmanageable caseloads yet we are being told to ‘do more with less.’ Not sure how that is humanly possible, ” said one employee, while another called the number of empty desks due to stress leave “staggering.”

“This work environment not only adds undue stress, it is teetering on compromising my professional standards, which I am not OK with,” added one registered nurse at the board.

The records obtained by the Star show that there has been a 33 per cent increase in allowed lost-time injury claims between 2015 and 2018, from 51,500 to almost 70,000 projected claims this year. But despite this increased volume, the number of front-line staff at the board fell by 9 per cent over the same period. There are currently 785 case managers and adjudicators at the board, down from 815 in 2015.

“We are drowning,” said one employee in response to Teahen’s blog.

Harry Goslin, president of the Ontario Compensation Employees Union, said he has “continued to raise concerns about rising work volumes.”

“The WSIB on the other hand maintains the view that there is not a workload problem,” he told the Star.

As previously reported by the Star, a January poll conducted by the union found that 90 per cent of the 263 employees surveyed said work-related stress was impacting their personal lives and 92 per cent attributed the workload issues to understaffing at the WSIB.

Asked if the board would commit to hiring more front-line staff, Jarvis said his organization would replace staff who retired or were moved within the organization, but said hiring was “based on the data that shows how much activities and claims we have.”

Subscribe to the Star to support reporting and analysis from award-winning reporters like Sara Mojtehedzadeh

Employees made clear in their responses to Teahen’s blog that they cared deeply about serving Ontarians and the integrity of the compensation system.

“Our founding father created a fair compensation system whereby workers gave up their right to sue their employers in exchange for a fair and compassionate system that adjudicated (a claim) on the basis of its own merit,” said one 30-year veteran.

“How can adjudicators make the best possible decisions if they are short-changed in training, do not have enough people to do the job, have unreasonable time frames, and have processes in place that short-change the worker?”

“We as the employees of WSIB do care about the outcomes for our workers and the experience they have,” added another.

“We want to be proud of where we work and say what good things we are doing. Right now I am not feeling that.”

Sara Mojtehedzadeh is a Toronto-based reporter covering labour issues. Follow her on Twitter: @saramojtehedz

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When you grow up surrounded by suicide, it seems normal. How do you heal a ‘broken spirit’?

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Twenty years ago, Mike Metatawabin went to Wunnumin Lake First Nation to act as a translator for the Elders coming inland from the James Bay coast to attend a summer meeting of Nishnawbe Aski Nation leadership . It was during this trip that Mike first met a Ralph Rowe survivor. The encounter altered the course of his life.

He had been sitting in the community hall and remembers being overwhelmed by the odd, unsettling feeling that he needed to leave. The cold rain soaked through his shoes as he made his way to the modest cabin where he was staying. He hoped the wood stove would be on but the cabin was dark and chilly. He could feel someone’s eyes on him. A young man was sitting in the corner. A small leather hand drum was on the table in front of him. The noose was near.

A graveyard in Iqaluit, the capital city of Nunavut, with an arc of whale bones. The graveyard is just outside the city of nearly 8,000 people on the shores of Frobisher Bay. The suicide rate among Inuit is 10 times greater than the national average.
A graveyard in Iqaluit, the capital city of Nunavut, with an arc of whale bones. The graveyard is just outside the city of nearly 8,000 people on the shores of Frobisher Bay. The suicide rate among Inuit is 10 times greater than the national average.  (Tanya Talaga / Toronto Star)

Mike took a seat and began to beat the drum. He told the young man of the pain he was holding after the sudden death of his infant just months earlier. Mike finished his story and continued to drum.

Then the young man spoke. He said that tonight was the night. He could not take it any longer. The hurt was unbearable, and no one seemed to care. He didn’t feel he could talk to anyone about what Ralph Rowe had done to him, because it was the faithful who kept inviting the monster back. Every time the Anglican priest flew into Wunnumin, he was met with praise and adulation.

But the young man, who was then only a boy, knew what was in store for him. He was terrified. No one would believe that this revered man of the cloth would do such nasty things. The story poured out of the man, and Mike continued to drum. They sat together for hours, until they were both emotionally spent and Mike saw the danger pass from the man’s eyes.

“I’ve never forgotten that moment. A time when someone was reaching out and I was the one who answered the call. It makes you wonder at the power of the will to live. At a time when all seems lost, an angel comes calling, sending a message to listen,” Mike wrote in the 2016 Mushkegowuk Council of Cree Nations report “The People’s Inquiry into Our Suicide Pandemic.”

Mike was the lead commissioner in the council’s investigation of the suicide epidemic in the James Bay First Nations communities from Moose Cree to Attawapiskat to Fort Albany. After his encounter with the young man in 1998, Mike would cross NAN territory, trying to find survivors who, for decades, had told no one what had happened to them. He never dreamed that encounter would lead to the discovery of hundreds of men, all survivors, living with their pain, fighting their memories with alcohol, addiction, and violence, experiencing suicidal ideation, and, in some cases, dying by suicide.

Mike never dreamed that Rowe’s legacy would have an impact on the wives and the children of all of his victims. To this day, the devastation of those assaults committed by a sick man echo like thunder in the 20 communities that were the ministry of the Anglican priest. And his crimes can be linked to the suicides of the seven girls from Wapekeka and Poplar Hill First Nations four decades later.

READ MORE:

Friends to the end: How the suicides of seven Indigenous girls revealed a community undone

Rev. Ralph Rowe, back left, poses with young people at a Manitoba fishing and hunting camp in a photo from 1986. Rowe was ordained by the Anglican Church and ministered to remote First Nations communities.
Rev. Ralph Rowe, back left, poses with young people at a Manitoba fishing and hunting camp in a photo from 1986. Rowe was ordained by the Anglican Church and ministered to remote First Nations communities.

On the web page for Wapekeka First Nation, in small type down the left of the screen, there is a reference to the signing of Treaty No. 9. It reads: “The sun coming up in the horizon at dawn, the river flowing ever so gently, the trees standing tall and grass from Mother Earth. One can hear the words of the Treaty Commissioner promising that the Queen will forever take care of her children. As long as the sun shines, as long as the river flows and as long as the grass grows.”

Wapekeka First Nation is located about 450 kilometres northeast of Sioux Lookout in northern Ontario. In 1929, the area was added to Treaty No. 9 as the province of Ontario expanded to the northwest, toward the Manitoba border. The only way to get there is by a charter flight (about $1,200 return) with Wasaya Airways, which is owned and operated by the First Nations it serves.

Nestled between Frog Lake and Angling Lake, it is made up of two communities, Wapekeka 1 Indian Reserve and Wapekeka 2 Indian Reserve, and altogether occupies about 52 square kilometres. The land is rich with wildlife and freshwater lakes and includes one of the last untouched areas of boreal forest on Mother Earth. In the dead of winter, the region is repressively cold, with stretches at minus 30 or 40 degrees C. When you exhale, your breath forms frozen droplets and sticks to exposed hair, even your eyelashes. The snow crunches, clean and white under your feet. The only respite is to stay indoors, and even when you do go out there aren’t many places to go.

Wapekeka has three churches for a community of only 363 souls. Anglican is the dominant denomination, and the Church’s history here is complex. It has been both a saviour and, because of one man, a force of destruction. That man is Ralph Rowe, a former priest.

It is almost impossible to describe how damaging the actions of Ralph Knight Munck Rowe have been to Wapekeka and the more than 20 other communities in northwestern Ontario and in northern Manitoba. His cover was perfect. Rowe, the son of an Anglican clergyman, was first an Ontario Provincial Police officer and assigned to Manitoulin Island, home to a handful of First Nations communities. Around this time, he got involved with the Boy Scouts. He also took flying lessons.

Rowe abruptly left the OPP and in 1966 moved to Kenora, where he operated small charter flights to remote communities. From 1967 to 1970, he lived in Manitoba, where he studied theology and became a lay reader for the Anglican Church, travelling in the summers to Weagamow and Neskantanga First Nations, living in each for one month at a time.

By 1975, Rowe was ordained by the Anglican Church and charged with ministering to the remote First Nations communities of northern Ontario. He endeared himself to people who had adopted the Christian faith during their time in residential school. He also learned Oji-Cree so he could talk to the Elders.

Rowe took special interest in young boys around the age of 12. He took them camping — girls were never invited — and became a Cub Scout leader, starting a program in Wunnumin Lake in 1977. His method of operation was always the same.

During Rowe’s sentencing in Kenora in 2012, Justice Donald Fraser said Rowe’s actions had had “bigger impact than even the residential school experience,” because it was “fresher” and it affected a generation of men who were becoming leaders of their communities.

“You were greatly respected, you drew young children to you like a pied piper and it is the confusion of that experience, somebody trusted and respected by parents, liked by children, and then suddenly turn[ed] into a parasite, a monster,” Justice Fraser said. “If putting you through a mincing machine and feeding you to dogs would help, I would love to do that if that were in the Criminal Code but it is not and it would not help.”

From the 1970s until the mid-1980s, Rowe engaged in rampant sexual abuse of young boys. NAN estimates that Ralph Rowe’s victims could number up to 500. He is likely one of the country’s most prolific pedophiles. But he has been charged with only about 60 sex crimes and served no more than five years in prison because of a plea bargain.

Rowe, 78, now lives on Vancouver Island, in the small, sleepy community of Lake Cowichan. Journalist Stephanie Harrington visited Rowe at the local Anglican church, where he is a parishioner. Rowe says that he has been through “all kinds of programs” and “the fact is no one can be more sorry than I am.”

He also says he wants a “healing circle,” something he has sought for 31 years. “And I’ve continued to be denied,” he says. He maintains that there are many abuse claims, but “It’s at a stage now where many things are included that really aren’t true.”

Rowe has left a destructive legacy in communities that are already grappling with the after-effects of residential schools — broken marriages and families; physical and sexual abuse; violence and domestic assault; addiction issues; broken men with low self-confidence and confusing thoughts, including the feeling they have nowhere to turn.

NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler blames Rowe for the suicides of dozens of adult men who were unable to cope with what he did to them, and for the cascading effect on the children or relatives of survivors. Without on-site medical and mental health care, the situation is untenable.

Many who took their lives during a spike of suicides in Wapekeka First Nation during the 1990s were Ralph Rowe survivors. In response, the community set up the annual Survivors of Suicide Conference, and within a year of its funding being cut in 2015 the seven girls from Wapekeka and Poplar Hills First Nations died by suicide. Today the First Nations communities inside Treaty No. 9 — communities such as Pikangikum, Attawapiskat, Fort Albany and Wapekeka — have one of the highest youth suicide rates in the western world.

Clockwise from top left: Kanina Sue Turtle, Alayna Moose, Jolynn Winter, Amy Owen and Chantell Fox. The young girls, whose lives had intersected either in group homes or care facilities far away from their communities, took their lives within a year of each other.
Clockwise from top left: Kanina Sue Turtle, Alayna Moose, Jolynn Winter, Amy Owen and Chantell Fox. The young girls, whose lives had intersected either in group homes or care facilities far away from their communities, took their lives within a year of each other.  (tania_pereira)

Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the voice for 60,000 Inuit who live in Canada, says leaders and Elders must be involved and children must be protected and deserve to have a happy, healthy childhood. “There is no way to talk about this issue without it being difficult,” he says. “We need to do more to keep our children safe. We know the risk factor that child sexual abuse is for suicide.”

Sexual abuse is a driver of high suicide rates in Indigenous communities across Canada, but it is not often talked about openly, notes the University of Saskatchewan’s Jack Hicks. The suicide rate among young Indigenous women in Saskatchewan between the ages of 10 and 19 is 29.7 times higher than that of non-Indigenous women in the same age range. Comparatively, the suicide rate among First Nations men in the same age group is 6.4 times higher than that of non-First Nations men.


No matter where you are in Seabird, you can hear the long, mournful bellow of the train whistle. The Canadian Pacific Railway built a track straight through the reserve in 1881, two years after it was founded by the Indian Reserve Commission.

Seabird is a modern, progressive communityof 1,150 nestled in the lush green valleys of the Fraser River system in southern British Columbia, beneath the snow-capped near-pyramid of Mount Cheam. It has elementary and high schools, a vocational school, a daycare, and a thriving, well-staffed and well-appointed medical centre which employs First Nations doctors and dentists and trained nurses.

Elder Maggie Pettis — who lost her brother, Cliff Pettis, to suicide five years ago, and then more recently her nephew, Brian Junior — has spent decades striving to improve health care and education at Seabird. She is now working on a suicide prevention study focused on returning to cultural teachings to strengthen Indigenous pride in each Seabird child.

In the past several years, nearly half a dozen young men in Seabird have died by suicide on the railroad tracks. Each seemed to have a similar trigger — the breakup of a relationship or a fight or disagreement with a loved one. “Sometimes they are too far gone; their spirit is lost, and it is hard to pull them back,” says Maggie.

Maggie knows everyone in Seabird, and she knows the struggles behind everyone’s smiles. She hands out her cellphone number to those in need of a sympathetic ear. When she sees Margo Jimmie and her 17-year-old daughter, Summer, at the health clinic, they both get an extra-warm greeting.

Seabird Island First Nation Elder Maggie Pettis lost her brother Cliff to suicide five years ago, and more recently, her nephew Brian Junior.
Seabird Island First Nation Elder Maggie Pettis lost her brother Cliff to suicide five years ago, and more recently, her nephew Brian Junior.

Margo is learning how to live with the hollowness of grief, and the road is not easy. Margo looks as if she has just walked out of a downtown Vancouver office tower. Her jet-black hair is fashionably short and swept to the side. When I meet her, she wears a black cotton cardigan over black pants and a blouse with a black, pink and blue geometric print. Her long, hot-pink fingernails are filed into points like talons. On her ring finger, instead of polish, a jewel is affixed to the nail.

For Margo it has been three years, and the pain has not subsided. She knows it never will. Margo gets up every day and readies herself as if she were going to work. But she hasn’t been for three years. Not since Feb. 8, 2015. Not since her son, Bubbs, left her.

Margo raised Summer, Bubbs and their brother, Tristan, on her own after their father left. The children had no father figure until Margo met her current husband, nine years later. “It’s hard for a boy to adjust when they have always only known Mom,” she says. “So when a father figure comes in, it is hard for them to accept because they have no trust with males.”

She remembers Bubbs as a loving child, charming, caring — but he struggled with mental-health issues. When he was 5, he had uncontrollable temper tantrums which she thought were normal, just a child of a single mom acting out. She didn’t have good relationships or frequent contact with doctors or nurses, and mental health services are hard to access.

Once, she took Bubbs to the hospital, and after waiting eight hours to see a psychologist, he left feeling even more isolated than before. He was exhausted and had just told her whatever she wanted to hear so he could leave. They were given a phone number and told to call if he got any worse.

“That doesn’t work,” scoffs Margo. “It works by sitting and talking and getting to the bottom of the issues. The person with mental-health issues doesn’t understand what is normal and what is not.” She feels that mental-health workers need to invest more time in the quiet ones who bottle everything up. Those teens aren’t going to call for help.

Bubbs would think someone was following him, so he couldn’t stay in one place for too long and could never explain who was coming after him. Whenever he had one of those episodes, no matter where he was, Margo would pick him up and bring him home.

“He wouldn’t stay home for long. He’d take off. The more he’d take off, the more I’d find him. He’d get into relationships with girls. He already had a broken relationship with family members, and to go through a breakup with a girl was emotionally hard on him. I tried to explain to him that he would have many relationships in life and not all were going to stay. He had a whole life ahead of him,” she says as the tears flow down her face.

Her words never got through to her son. And what happened next was stunning. “Within the first year of his death, three of his friends passed away the same way,” she says. All suicides. All on the railroad tracks.

Bubbs left behind three children, two boys and a girl. Margo calls them her blessings.

Following her son’s death, Margo shut off her phone. Then, for whatever reason, one day she turned it back on. As soon as she did, she got a call from the mother of Bubbs’s friend Carlos.

“She said, ‘Margo, I am at my doorway.’ I asked if she was OK. She said, ‘No, I am not OK. I am packing right now. I have the RCMP at my door and they just told me my son has gone to be with your son.’ And I said, ‘What do you say?’ She said, ‘My son is gone and I find myself standing here in the doorway. Can you come help me?’ I said, ‘I will call you right back.’

“I phoned my aunt and told her what had happened. I told her Carlos’s mom was asking me to help her and I just didn’t have the strength … My aunt went over to help her. I am very fortunate my band was able to cover the family financially. And then we buried Carlos with my son.”

Two more of Bubbs’s friends died after that. “Each time I would fall, and it has only been three years, and I tell you it has taken me this long to get here,” she says. “I am still not back to work but I make myself get up and leave the house as soon as everyone else leaves. But I have so many triggers at home, it is unbelievable. I knew suicide hit very [hard], and it has been my reality since Bubbs left. I carried a lot of self-blame for the first two years. What-ifs, how, what could have.”

People who do not live in an Indigenous community cannot grasp what it is like to grow up where suicide is the norm. For too many Indigenous communities worldwide, life is immersed in the normalcy of death.

Children sit in gym class at Seabird Island First Nation's elementary school. Seabird is located along the Fraser River Valley in British Columbia, an hour and a half east of Vancouver
Children sit in gym class at Seabird Island First Nation’s elementary school. Seabird is located along the Fraser River Valley in British Columbia, an hour and a half east of Vancouver

Natan Obed knows the impact of suicide. As a hockey player and also as a coach in Nunatsiavut and Nunavut, Natan has lost count of how many hockey-playing peers or children — or parents of children — have died by suicide. Natan has been a driving force behind the creation of the National Inuit Suicide Prevention Strategy, which was released on July 27, 2016. It is the only suicide prevention strategy in Canada that is co-ordinated on the national, regional and community levels.

Key to the program is identifying common risk factors and creating “a shared, evidence-based, Inuit-specific approach to suicide prevention across Inuit Nunangat.” Natan knows the risk factors are many, and that they can begin in the womb with exposure to alcohol. The factors multiply if the child grows up in an overcrowded home or experiences malnutrition, food insecurity, neglect, or sexual abuse. If a parent or a close relative dies by suicide, the risk increases.

The Inuit strategy identifies as priority areas: creating social equity, creating cultural continuity, nurturing healthy Inuit children from birth, ensuring access to a continuum of mental wellness services, healing unresolved trauma and grief, and mobilizing Inuit knowledge for resilience and suicide prevention.

At the heart of the suicides is the lack of health and social equity — health care, housing and a safe environment.

In the United States, it is estimated that Native American youth are “twice as likely to be exposed to domestic violence, sexual abuse, substance abuse, and poverty compared to other groups,” according to a May 2016 article “Native Americans facing highest suicide rates,” in the Lakota People’s Law Project. Theresa M. Pouley, the chief judge of the Tulalip Tribal Court in Washington State, argues that these factors result in Indigenous youth developing post-traumatic stress disorder similar to that experienced by soldiers who served in Afghanistan.

In Brazil, Indigenous people continue to be forcibly removed from their ancestral lands by domestic ranchers who often work for big multinational firms to produce crops such as sugar cane, palm oil and coffee. There are only 734,000 Indigenous people left in Brazil, accounting for 0.4 per cent of the country’s population, down from nearly five million at the point of contact during the 15th century. There are only 54 Indigenous nations left in Brazil.

To this day, Indigenous people in Brazil face continued attacks, marginalization and neglect. Since 2007, 833 Indigenous people have been murdered and more than 350 have died by suicide. Janete Morais, a Guarani law student at the Federal University of Rio Grande, comes from a reserve in northern Brazil that was set up before the 1988 constitutional change that strengthened Indigenous rights and environmental laws. She knows her people are lucky to have their own land; when she goes to school in the city, she passes Guarani people living on the street or in the gutters. “They live on the roads,” Morais says. “They don’t have a place to live.”

The Indigenous students and some professors at the university have been raising money to help the families survive. Morais says the continued trauma and societal marginalization wear down the will to live. “When something bad happens to them, their spirit becomes weak, and the first thing that comes to their mind is taking their own lives. They feel spiritually and psychologically weak,” she says.

Morais, now 35, thought about suicide many times, but she says a strong spiritual connection to her grandfather, a shaman, kept her alive.


Since the 1980s, researchers have reported on the rise of suicide “clusters,” defined as “serial suicides related in time, space, and etiology through a process of imitation.” When suicide becomes normalized, it is an ever-present option. In North America, this phenomenon has occurred among the Hopi, Navajo, Pueblo, Flathead and Wind River Nations, as well as in communities in northern Ontario and among Inuit.

On April 10, 2016, seven children between the ages of 9 and 14 from the northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat First Nation were admitted to the community’s 15-bed hospital for possible drug overdoses in an attempted suicide. There were 11 suspected suicide attempts within a 24-hour period.

According to research in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, data taken from the 2008-2010 First Nations Regional Health Survey showed that exposure to a previous familial generation that went through residential school is associated with an “increased risk for lifetime suicide ideation.” And having two generations of residential school history in your family increases the odds of “reporting a suicide attempt compared with having one generation.”

Two of Canada’s foremost researchers on youth suicide, the University of British Columbia’s Michael Chandler and the University of Victoria’s Christopher Lalonde, point out that among British Columbia’s 200 First Nations communities, it is estimated that Indigenous youth take their own lives at a rate between five and 20 times higher than that of non-Indigenous youth. Over the span of 10 years, youth suicide rates varied in “wildly saw-toothed ways” from one community to another.

Jack Hicks at the University of Saskatchewan believes Chandler and Lalonde’s work should have taken a harder look at levels of community trauma and sexual abuse. He notes that Chandler and Lalonde used data collected between 1987 and 1992 from 196 of British Columbia’s First Nations, and they found that 90 per cent of youth suicides occurred in just 10 per cent of the bands and that “some communities show rates some 800 times the national average while in others, suicide is essentially unknown.” However, suicide attempts, thoughts or ideation were not measured.

“If it were found that no one living on that street died by suicide during a five-year period, would we therefore describe the street as one where ‘suicide behaviour is essentially unknown’? Every human society we know of, present and past, experiences some degree of suicide behaviour.

“Why would Indigenous communities be otherwise?” Hicks asks. “Any very small population group may well go five or more years without a resident dying by suicide, but there will likely have been some amount of suicide ideation — and possibly suicide attempts.” The socio-economic realities of many communities, along with adverse childhood events such as sexual abuse, cannot be removed from the equation.

This photograph of the Sami, taken at the turn of the last century, hangs in the Sami Parliament of Norway building in Karasjok. For thousands of years, the Sami lived following herds of reindeer, but attempts to assimilate them in Scandinavian society have reduced the number of herders who live in traditional ways.
This photograph of the Sami, taken at the turn of the last century, hangs in the Sami Parliament of Norway building in Karasjok. For thousands of years, the Sami lived following herds of reindeer, but attempts to assimilate them in Scandinavian society have reduced the number of herders who live in traditional ways.

For more than a century, Norway concentrated efforts on assimilating the Sami. The cornerstone of the policy was to achieve ethnic cleansing through the eradication of language and culture, and re-education and indoctrination through the school system and the adoption of Christianity. Harald Eidheim, one of the foremost scholars on the Sami, particularly during the postwar years, argued that one of the most significant issues affecting the Sami in Norway was the public’s perception of the people, who were regarded as “beggarly, old-fashioned, reactionary, and — in many circles — heathen.” As a result of the shame they experienced at school, the Sami hid their culture and traditions.

Simon Issát Marainen, poet and famous singer of traditional Sami songs called joik, was called home to manage the family herd of nearly 13,000 reindeer after his brothers Gustu and Heaika, 29 and 21 years old respectively, died by suicide in the same year. Simon remembers Gustu, the happy-go-lucky one, telling him he would never do that, that it would never happen. But ultimately he decided to end his life, alone among the reindeer, high up in the hills.

“I had never been 100 per cent with the reindeer, but I had to take over, and now I am with them every day,” says Simon. “I had a dream to make a career of my music, to travel all over the world, and I have been all over … but I don’t have that opportunity anymore.”

The life of a reindeer herder is not easy. The animals do not know international borders, and Norway is trying to discourage herders from moving along their traditional path north and has historically imposed fines on herders who trespass on private property. Simon’s family has received fines of 575,000 Norwegian kroner ($93,000 Canadian). The government is also selling the herding land to developers to build cottages for European vacationers.

Simon Marainen's two brothers, Gustu and Heaika, died by suicide in 2014. After they died, Simon, part of Norway's Sami community, had to put a pause on his singing career to go home and tend to the family's reindeer herd.
Simon Marainen’s two brothers, Gustu and Heaika, died by suicide in 2014. After they died, Simon, part of Norway’s Sami community, had to put a pause on his singing career to go home and tend to the family’s reindeer herd.

“We need this land for our animals. Without the land we can’t live,” Simon says. “My mom and dad are really worried. My parents are older now. I have two sisters but they don’t work with the reindeer. Our whole family is pressured from all sides. There is a big fight to live the Sami life.

“There isn’t anyone who believes in the reindeer herders; no one trusts us. My oldest brother, he was always so positive, so glad and happy, and then one day he was just gone. He finished his life when he was among the reindeer herd.

“But you can’t give up on your life, on your culture,” he says. “You belong to something, and without this we are nothing.”

If you’re experiencing emotional distress and want to talk, call the First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310. It’s toll-free and open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.


ABOUT THE SERIES

The Atkinson Fellowship awards a seasoned Canadian journalist with the opportunity to pursue a yearlong investigation into a current policy issue. The award is a project funded by the Atkinson Foundation, the Honderich family and the Toronto Star.

Tanya Talaga won the 2017-18 fellowship to explore the causes and fallout of youth suicide in Indigenous communities. Talaga’s project is also being featured in the 2018 CBC Massey Lectures.

Talaga is a national columnist for the Star who specializes in Indigenous affairs. A two-time National Newspaper Award winner, her 2017 book, Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death and Hard Truths in a Northern City (House of Anansi Press) won the RBC Taylor Prize and the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.

Her new book, based on her Atkinson/Massey project, is titled All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward. It goes on sale Tuesday, Oct. 16.

Talaga’s Massey Lectures begin the same day in Thunder Bay. The free event starts at 7 p.m. at the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium.

The final four lectures will be delivered on:

  • Oct. 18 in Halifax at Halifax Central Library
  • Oct. 23 and 24 in Vancouver at York Theatre
  • Oct. 26 in Saskatoon at Broadway Theatre
  • Oct. 30 in Toronto at Koerner Hall

The lectures will be recorded and are due to be broadcast on CBC Radio the week of Nov. 12.

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