'The crisis never went away': Cross Lake chief says more resources needed to prevent suicides

While First Nations leaders in Manitoba welcome the recommendations of a House of Commons report on suicide in Indigenous communities, they say the federal government must do more to address the root causes of the crisis.

'We’re tired of hearing the same thing over and over again': Pimicikamak chief Cathy Merrick

Six people took their lives between December 2015 and March 2016 in Pimicikamak — also known as Cross Lake — about 500 kilometres north of Winnipeg. First Nations leaders in Manitoba are calling on the federal government to deal with the root causes of the suicide crisis. (CBC)

Leonard Ross is sitting in his pickup truck, parked outside his home in Pimicikamak.

It's a quiet day in late June in the northern Manitoba First Nation — also known as Cross Lake — about 500 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

But Ross, a 51-year-old mental health worker with Cross Lake Band Health Services, is on edge. He's restless.

"This kind of work — it's not easy," he says. "I'm always on the run."

Ross was up late again the night before.

Like far too many young people in Pimicikamak, two women in their early 20s, were thinking of ending their lives.

"One said, 'I wish I could hang myself' on Facebook," Ross says. "I went and looked for her. Then the other one — same thing. Twenty minutes or half an hour later."

Ross found the first of the two women. An RCMP officer found the second later that night about 2 a.m.

"Sometimes it's quiet for weeks, and then it picks up again," Ross says. "We need more people, or else I'll burn out. I'll be useless to people if I get burned out."

Crisis rooted in colonialism

Round-the-clock services are just one of 28 recommendations made earlier this summer by the House of Commons committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs, as part of its report on suicide in Indigenous communities.

About 1,000 people took part in a suicide prevention walk in Cross Lake in March 2016. More than a year later, chief Cathy Merrick says the suicide crisis hasn't left her community. (Facebook)

The committee heard from more than 50 Indigenous youth, First Nations, Inuit and Métis leaders, academics and health organizations.

The vast majority of witnesses said today's crisis is rooted in colonialism and its legacy, placing Indigenous people at a much greater risk of suicide and other mental health issues.

The committee called on the federal government to give Indigenous people greater control over their affairs, recognizing their right to self-determination.

The crisis never went away.- Cathy Merrick, chief of Pimicikamak Okimawin

The report also recommended ensuring that mental health services in Indigenous communities are trauma-informed and culturally appropriate, supported by adequate long-term funding.

First Nations leaders grappling with suicide in their communities are urging the government to put the report's recommendations into action.

'We can't just talk about it anymore'

As the grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, Sheila North Wilson represents 30 First Nations in Northern Manitoba.

She testified before the Commons committee in February, only days after losing a cousin to suicide.

"I bet you every First Nations [person] you talk to on the street or anywhere will tell you they've had at least a family member commit suicide or know a friend that has," North Wilson told CBC News. "It's so prevalent. It's a sad situation."

Sheila North Wilson, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, says that while the federal government may have good intentions when it comes to responding to the suicide crisis in Indigenous communities, its actions continue to fall short. (Sheila North/Supplied)

While she welcomed the committee's work, North Wilson said Canada still has a long way to go to live up to report's recommendations.

"We're tending to the crisis," she said. "We're trying to manage the crisis, but this is not the solution."

Until First Nations start to see better housing and infrastructure in their communities, better access to good quality food, better education and employment outcomes, she said, the sense of hopelessness and abandonment will not go away.

"We can't just talk about it anymore," North Wilson said. "We have to do something about it as a nation to address the issues that cause people to want to take their own lives."

'We just want the same'

Six people in Pimicikamak took their lives between December 2015 and March 2016, prompting the community of 8,500 people to declare a state of emergency.

More than a year later, Pimicikamak Okimawin chief Cathy Merrick said her community still faces the same underlying issues and lack of resources.

"The crisis never went away," she said.

While mental health therapists visit the town on a rotational basis, Merrick said, they leave before they can build trust with their patients, leaving them to start all over again.

"Our people are still getting sent out to Thompson, to Winnipeg," she said. "Just to be able to access the same health care as anybody — as any other Canadian, as any other Manitoban.

"We just want the same," Merrick added. "We're not asking for anything over and above, and we never have. Just the same."

Cathy Merrick, chief of Pimicikamak Okimawin and the Cross Lake Band of Indians, says people in her community still suffer from inadequate access to mental health services, even after a rash of six suicides between December 2015 and March 2016. (CBC News)

The federal government pledged $270 million over five years in its 2016 budget to improve health facilities for First Nations.

Last summer, Health Minister Jane Philpott visited Pimicikamak to announce the construction of a $40-million health care facility.

Merrick said it was a proud moment for her community, but she worries about other First Nations still struggling to access quality care.

As for the committee and its recommendations, Merrick cautioned that similar recommendations have too often gone unfulfilled.

"We're tired of hearing the same thing over and over again," she said. "It's time that they start providing those services and quit the lip service."

Indigenous people have the answer: Ross

Back at his home, Leonard Ross is tired, too.

He says he knows Indigenous people have the answers to the crisis.

"Do it our way," he says. "We know these people. We live with these people. We know what's going on."

Though his work has taken its toll, Ross says he'll continue to help people in his community through their darkest moments.

"If you love life, you would, too," he says. "If you love your people, you'd do it."

With files from Katie Nicholson