A First Nation in Northern Ontario is experiencing a spike in its already high suicide rate, prompting a former chief to issue a public cry for assistance.The Pikangikum First Nation is located in remote northwest Ontario, near the Manitoba border.
Five people between the ages of 16 and 26 have killed themselves since July 15 in the community of Pikangikum, about 300 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.
"I feel strongly that no one cares," writes ex-chief Gordon Peters in an open letter addressed to "whoever wants to listen and help."
Pikangikum's suicide rate was already abnormally high. A report from Ontario's chief coroner earlier this summer looked at the 16 people between ages 10 and 19 who took their own lives on the First Nation between 2006 and 2008 — in a community of 2,400 residents. Province-wide, there are between 40 and 50 suicides per year in that age group.
"We cannot live alone within the boundaries of our reservation and think that this is the way life is," Peters writes in his letter. "This is NOT NORMAL!"
Lack of plumbing
The coroner's report paints a devastating picture of residents struggling tenaciously against poverty and deprivation, fighting substance abuse, unemployment and domestic violence. More than a quarter of girls in Grades 3 and 4 said they tried sniffing gasoline, the report says. Most homes have no indoor plumbing or running water. The entire community, which is accessible by road only in the winter, has just 170 jobs.
"A lack of an integrated health-care system, poor education by provincial standards and a largely absent community infrastructure are uniquely positioned against the backdrop of colonialism, racism, lack of implementation of self-determination and social exclusions," the coroner's report states.
It's a reality that has persisted in Pikangikum for years. And it has Stan Beardy, grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which includes Pikangikum, struggling to find solutions.
"I ask myself why, why is that happening, because that is not normal, to lose five young people in one community in a very short period," he said.
In the long run, Beardy said, the First Nation needs to control its own destiny.
"Self-determination, self government — I think when we put that concept into practice it gives hope to the young people that yes, there is something in their future."
But former Pikangikum chief Peters says in his letter that can't happen until governments "wake up and take notice."