The chief of Neskantaga First Nation in northern Ontario says he is not lifting a state of emergency over suicides that was issued after four suicides in 2013 until the root causes of the crisis are addressed.
Chief Wayne Moonias made the remarks on Friday during a visit to his community by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett.
Bennett is on her way to Attawapiskat, the Cree community that declared a state of emergency last week after 11 suicide attempts in one day. Neskantaga is also located on the Attawapiskat River and also has a history of suicide, Moonias said.
"We have not lifted that state of emergency to this day, because of the fact the [living] conditions still remain the same," Moonias said, adding that a 14-year-old girl from Neskantaga died by suicide in January.
Those conditions include overcrowded and crumbling homes, where up to five families live in a single bungalow. As well, Neskantaga is home to Canada's longest standing boil water advisory. People in the community have been without safe tap water for 22 years.
Charla Moonias, 18, left home during the suicide crisis three years ago to seek mental health counselling unavailable in the community of 300.
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"That's when I realized I can't live in my own home any more because I am scared of my own life," said Charla Moonias. (Although they share a last name, she's not directly related to the chief.)
Moonias is now attending school outside the First Nation but dreams of coming back.
"This is my home and I want to work here and help everybody out," she said.
Right now, that's impossible. The housing situation means very few young people have their own homes and most sleep on couches or in overcrowded bedrooms of extended families. Charla Moonias said using the water in Neskantaga, even for bathing, causes skin problems for her, causing her to break out in blisters.
"The suicides, the water, the housing — everything is connected," she said.
Poverty promotes despair
Bennett agreed that "poverty promotes despair" and sees much work ahead to raise the hopes of young people in Neskantaga and other First Nations.
For now, her department has committed to funding the design of a new water treatment plant and Bennett said she believes it could be completed in time to transport building materials on the winter road next year.
The minister also visited Pikangikum First Nation on Friday where nine people died in a house fire in March. She was scheduled to travel to Bearskin Lake First Nation on Saturday, where a 10-year-old died by suicide in December. On Monday, Bennett plans to visit Attawapiskat.
In each place, she said she aims to deliver a hopeful message.
"Communities have to have the ability to determine their future," she said. "Our job is to put in place all the things the communities have decided they need so that they can see a future."