Cowichan Tribal Chief Harvey Alphonse reached out for help this week to stem the tidal wave of youth suicides that is overwhelming his community on Vancouver Island. Chief Alphonse blames this problem on the intergenerational legacy of residential schools combined with a lack of resources for mental health counseling.. Cowichan acting health director Jennifer Jones says her nine counselors are suffering job related burn-out and is calling for more staff to take a more preventative approach.

All the above may be true, but the primary problem is a youth unemployment rate of 80-90% and the sense of hopelessness it breeds, which will drive any young person towards suicidal depression whether they be aboriginal, white, educated or otherwise. Until this is addressed, nothing will change, no matter how many counselors are hired. Kids need a purpose in life and a reason to feel good about themselves.

Rather than pumping more financial resources into band-aid solutions, government and aboriginal leaders must provide decent paying jobs for these kids. The place to start is in their own backyards where there is a pile of construction, maintenance, electrical and plumbing work that needs to be done. It is sad to think that most of these young people have already dropped out of school and are illiterate. In view of this, a new model of on-the-job training should be started immediately to allow those aboriginal youth who are willing, able and ambitious, to embark on a multi-year program that will begin rewarding them immediately with a graduated pay cheque that will increase in step with their level of achievement. This program would initially emphasize learning by seeing and doing, with most of the classroom work and theory coming later as individuals work their way up the ladder toward fully qualified tradespeople.