Ontario boosts aboriginal health funding after suicide crisis

(Reuters) - Ontario plans to spend more than C$220 million ($168.48 million) to improve aboriginal healthcare, the Canadian province said on Wednesday, a month after a rash of suicide attempts in a poor indigenous community drew global attention.

The province’s Liberal government said the funding, to be spent over three years, would boost doctor service, make fruits and vegetables more available for children and increase the number of mental health workers.

After the initial funding commitment, Canada’s most populous province will spend C$104.5 million annually, Health Minister Eric Hoskins said.

The remote Attawapiskat First Nation, 600 miles (965 km) north of Ottawa, declared a state of emergency in April after 11 people attempted suicide over a few days.

“There’s an underlying First Nations health crisis, and that’s the root we need to get at,” said Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day, using a term for aboriginal peoples. “These investments are going to start dealing with the emergencies, but it’s like triaging a situation - you have to get to the bottom of it.”

Canada’s 1.4 million aboriginals have higher levels of poverty and a lower life expectancy than other Canadians, linked to substandard housing, drug and alcohol addiction, unemployment, and abuses suffered in Canada’s former residential school system for indigenous students.

Attawapiskat may qualify for some of the benefits of Ontario’s plan, including mental health workers in schools, recreation programs and suicide prevention training, said Shae Greenfield, a spokesman for Hoskins.

The federal government now needs to take action, Day said, naming specific needs for housing, infrastructure and education.

A spokeswoman for federal Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett could not be immediately reached.

Canada’s Liberal government said in March it would spend an extra C$8.37 billion over five years to help the aboriginal population deal with dire living conditions.

Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Editing by Peter Cooney