A small First Nation in northern Ontario has declared a state of emergency after two suicides in less than a week, bringing the toll to seven deaths and 20 suicide attempts in Neskantaga in the past year.
Leaders in the community, which lies in Ontario’s remote James Bay lowlands about 480 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, say pressures from nearby mining development are contributing to the problems.
About 400 people live in Neskantaga, and a recent health report said about half of them struggle with addictions — three quarters of them younger people.
That leaves about a handful of employable adults to help grief-stricken family members and do all the other jobs in the community.
A First Nations leader in the region said meeting the demands of the burgeoning mining industry is only adding to Neskantaga's misery.
"It’s just a lot of pressure, I think, from the outside," Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said, "as well as trying to deal with what's happening right in their community."
On Wednesday, the community issued a cry for help from all levels of government and Ottawa has promised additional nursing and counselling staff.
"Our hearts go out to those who have lost friends and loved ones to suicide," said Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq in a written statement.
"Health Canada will work closely with the community and send both additional nursing and counselling staff to assist during this difficult time."
One spokesman for a mining company in the region said there's no doubt his industry is creating an extra burden in small communities.
But "high unemployment [and]
lack of opportunity can be addressed by having resource development," said Glenn Nolan, who is in charge of Aboriginal Affairs for one of the mining companies in the area.
A community in crisis
The community is faced with many challenges including a high rate of prescription drug abuse (about 50 per cent of the population), issues of sexual abuse, poor water quality (currently under a boil water advisory), inadequate policing services, and no access to proper mental health and addictions treatments and counselling.
Neskantaga First Nation is a remote fly-in community located 480 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, with a population of 421 people. Young people make up more than 75 per cent of the population.
Source: Neskantaga First Nation
That development can provide a path away from despair, he said.
But Fiddler said Neskantaga is at a breaking point now — and the rosy future promised by the mining companies seems a long way off.
"We have reached a breaking point and our community is under crisis," said Neskantaga First Nation Councillor Roy Moonias in a press release issued Wednesday.
The community received word Wednesday that a 19-year-old youth had taken his own life, while the community was putting to rest an individual who passed away under similar circumstances last week.
"Our community is exhausted emotionally and physically as we try to pick up the pieces from these tragic events," Moonias said. " We are getting frustrated and concerned for your young people and entire community that Health Canada has not stepped-up to ensure we have adequate resourcing available to deal with and prevent such crippling incidents from taking place."