British Columbia

First Nation suicides: the view from Vancouver and Cowichan Valley

Attawapiskat is, sadly, not an isolated situation. All Points West talks to a Cowichan Tribes mental health worker whose community went through a similar suicide crisis in 2012, and On The Coast talks to a Vancouver aboriginal mental health advocate who says suicide crises are ongoing in that city.

Attawapiskat not an isolated situation, say two front-line workers — B.C. is in crisis too

A tattered Canadian flag flies over a building in Attawapiskat, Ont. in 2011. The remote northern Ontario First Nation has declared a state of emergency after numerous suicide attempts this week — but two First Nations mental health workers in B.C. say the situation is no better here. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Over the weekend, the Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario declared a state of emergency after the chief reported another 11 people had attempted suicide in one day.

That makes more than 100 suicide attempts over the past seven months in a community of only about 1,500. 

The danger of suicide is not isolated to Attawapiskat — the Centre for Suicide Prevention reports the suicide rate for First Nations youth is five to seven times the non-aboriginal average, and two advocates for aboriginal mental health in B.C. attest the situation in this province is indeed dire.

Stephanie Charlie is the project manager for Embracing Life at Cowichan Tribes, a suicide prevention strategy serving the Cowichan tribes since 2012, when a rash of suicide attempts befell that community.

"We understand exactly what they're feeling, and the stress and the fear that they're feeling … it brings back some memories and feelings of what we were going through," Charlie told All Points West host Robyn Burns about what it's like seeing Attawapiskat back in the headlines.

"We were dealing with weekly [suicides] plus attempts. Our alerts, which we call any call we get in our health centre of anybody who's contemplating suicide or there's a suspected attempt coming, that all increased. The numbers increased and our resources were spread too thin."

'It wasn't just mental health issues'

Charlie says the thing that was truly frightening about the Cowichan tribes situation was how the volume of calls led to health staff burning out and needing support themselves.

She says her community required extra resources from health agencies, the region and even members of the community.

But eventually, they did turn a corner, thanks, in part, to training for all staff, and later other community members about how to recognize when someone is at risk of suicide.

"It took years," she said. "It became clear that it wasn't just mental health issues. It was housing issues. It was education issues. It was child and family. So everybody was dealing with members in crisis and maybe we didn't realize it at the time."

Then-Chief Harvey Alphonse of Cowichan Tribes declared a state of emergency in 2012 after a rash of suicide attempts hit his community.

Vancouver still bleak for aboriginal youth

Scott Clark, executive director of the Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society (ALIVE), is used to crisis after crisis when it comes to suicide in Vancouver's urban aboriginal community.

"We know why these issues are the way they are," he told On The Coast host Stephen Quinn. "Perhaps the biggest challenge we have is getting people in leadership to recognize these issues and we all take responsibility to roll our sleeves up and find the solutions."

Perhaps the darkest moment was in 2012, when at least 24 aboriginal youths between 12 and 15 years old made a suicide pact and were hospitalized as a preventative measure.

"We're still advocating for the systems change to help those young people and their families," Clark said. "I think the common denominators are a sense of isolation, disempowerment. No one's listening to them, no one's loving them, no one's embracing them. They may be traumatized by a recent break-up, they might be a child in care."

"We know those things are what triggers a young person to commit to doing the act. When it gets to a group of young people, then we know we've got some serious issues, and that's what we're trying to address."

Scott Clark says any improvement in the aboriginal suicide crisis must come from the communities themselves. (Liam Britten/CBC)

Situation not improving

Clark says in Vancouver, things have not improved since 2012, and it's actually getting more difficult for aboriginal youth to maintain stable housing, stay in school, have food security and even stay with their peers.

But he insists the answer isn't more government programming or high-level policies.

"The answers are going to be in the communities, with the young people, with the grandmas, with the grandpas, with the parents. That's where your strength lies … but that's not the model that's endorsed in this country, federally or provincially or municipally," he said.

"Enough programs — you're programming Indians across this country to death! We need a strategic approach where we take ownership over these answers and we work with these communities."

With files from All Points West and On The Coast

To hear the full interview with Stephanie Charlie, click the audio labelled: Stephanie Charlie of Cowichan Tribes on her community's suicide crisis

To hear the full interview with Scott Clark, click the audio labelled: Scott Clark discusses suicide crisis in Vancouver's urban aboriginal community