Neskantaga First Nation declared a state of emergency nearly two weeks ago because of a spike in suicides, but the community 480 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont., has received little government support to help it deal with the crisis.
The few local leaders not crippled by grief are struggling to administer all the ordinary needs of the community of 300 — and deal with the crisis.
"Since the end of last year ... we average about 10 [suicide attempts] per month, and at one time we surpassed 30 attempts in one month," said emergency response co-ordinator Chris Moonias.
Moonias said he has been working round the clock since the suicide of a 35-year-old earlier this month. A teenager killed himself days later, prompting the state of emergency.
"Before you answer the phone, it's always, 'Oh, no, something happened,'" he said.
Often there is only one police officer in the remote First Nation, and no other first responders, Moonias said. As a result, everyday community members are forced to intervene when there's a suicide attempt.
"The worst thing I've had to do is either cut a person down or provide CPR," Moonias said. "And sometimes, even worse than that, is when you have to tell the family members that their sons, daughters, husbands, mother, father are gone."
'Hurting for the drug'
Casey Moonias, who isn't related to Chris Moonias, knows what it's like to get that news.
She quietly gives the list of half a dozen close friends and family members who have died — many by suicide — in recent years.
The 20-year-old has lost a cousin and two teenage friends in the last nine months.
"It's kind of hard to explain how I feel," she said. "It's very sad."
Casey Moonias said she believes many of the youth suicides are linked to addictions.
"I kind of think that's part of why some young people commit suicide is because they're like hurting for the drug," she said.
A recent health report from Neskantaga found half the population is struggling with addictions.
Gaps to be filled
Chris Moonias said the community's proposal for a drug treatment program was turned down last fall by Health Canada. So was its proposal for mental-health counselling pitched after a suicide in December.
Then, after the two most recent suicides, that money started to flow.
Representatives from the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority were to be in Neskantaga on Tuesday to develop a community plan for mental-health counselling.
But the suicide crisis is also highlighting the limited capacity in Neskantaga. Since the state of emergency was declared, government officials have been holding daily conference calls with leaders in the community.
Every day there is a new gap to be filled, for example:
- With no safe drinking water, it is expected to cost $100,000 to get enough bottled water to Neskantaga for the mental-health counsellors and other visitors to the community.
- Only one person in the First Nation knows how to administer the welfare cheques, and she is unable to work because of her grief. It's not clear how the Ontario Works money will be distributed to those in need in Neskantaga.
- Every government department wants a funding proposal before releasing money to Neskantaga, but very few people in the community are capable of drafting budgets and crafting proposals.
The First Nation is asking for $600,000 from government to deal with the immediate crisis. The money would go to areas such as as mental-health counselling, transportation for the professionals who come to the community as well as water and food for them, debriefing for the staff, and salary for an emergency response co-ordinator for one year.
So far, the federal government has committed about half the money that the First Nation said it needs. Ontario plans to contribute about $100,000.
But First Nations leaders say that money is sufficient for just the most pressing needs. More money will be needed in the medium and long term, if suicides are to be prevented.