Pimicikamak declares state of emergency to deal with suicide crisis

The northern Cree nation of Pimicikamak (Cross Lake) has declared a state of emergency after the deaths of six people who have killed themselves since Dec. 12.

6 people have killed themselves in the northern Manitoba community since Dec. 12

An estimated 1,000 people from the Pimicikamak Cree Nation (Cross Lake First Nation) attended a suicide prevention walk Thursday. (Facebook)

The acting chief of the northern Manitoba community of Pimicikamak Cree Nation (Cross Lake) has declared a state of emergency after the deaths of six people by suicide since December 12.

Shirley Robinson says her community is devastated. She has formally requested Health Canada to send in a crisis team.

"There's so much hurt, there's so much pain. You can feel it in every direction of our nation," the acting chief said. "We're tired. We need that support, we need that assistance, everybody in our community feels it … this is too much for me."

Cyril Muskego lost his 21-year-old granddaughter, Anita Scatch, to suicide in December. 1:03

The registered population of Pimicikamak is 8,365, with 5,858 registered as living on the reserve, according to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. 

Four of the victims were high school students, one was a young person from Norway House visiting the community for a funeral, and the most recent was a mother of three in her 30s.

Robinson said this latest death is hitting close to home, because the victim is her first cousin.

"There's so many unanswered questions … because they took the answers with them," said Robinson.

While the acting chief said she does not know the individual reasons behind the deaths, she said support services in Pimicikamak are stretched to the breaking point. 

"Our frontline workers that we have in our nation are all burnt out. The teachers are exhausted. The school counsellors are exhausted. The ministers are tired. The leadership is tired," said Robinson.

170 students on suicide watch list

High school principal Gordon Hum said his staff is trying to watch students closely. He said two students attempted suicide Tuesday night and staff are meeting Wednesday to put a plan in place to monitor at-risk students.

People in Cross Lake drive the casket of one of the people who died by suicide through the community. 0:36

Currently there are 170 students on a suicide watch list at the high school, said Robinson.

"This crisis is significantly putting a lot of stress and anxiety and depression and hopelessness amongst our people," she said.

Manitoba's Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross called the suicides in Pimicikamak a "tragic issue" and "devastating." The provincial government said it has sent a mobile crisis unit to the community from Thompson, Man.

The opposition critic for family services, Ian Wishart, said the NDP government has not done enough to prevent suicides in the province.

In a statement, Manitoba children's advocate Darlene MacDonald sent her "thoughts and prayers to the youth, their families, and all community members in Cross Lake."

CBC News has requested information from Health Canada about whether the department plans to send additional federal resources to Pimicikamak.

The acting chief of the northern Manitoba community of Pimicikamak Cree Nation (Cross Lake) has declared a state of emergency after the deaths of six people by suicide since December 12. 0:46

Quality of life 'so low'

Cora Morgan, Manitoba First Nations family advocate, said she predicts the crisis will grow worse if the connection between Pimicikamak and child welfare remains the same.

"It's overwhelmingly sad," she said.

"The quality of life for our young people is so low."

Cora Morgan, Manitoba First Nations family advocate, says she predicts the crisis will grow worse if the connection between Pimicikamak and child welfare remains the same. (CBC)

Watching members of the community die while others plead with provincial and federal levels of government for help is "really, really scary," Morgan said.

"When people aren't satisfied and happy with their lives, they see this as their only way out."

Bruce Unfried, acting CEO of the Northern Authority, said the agency has worked to provide resources to the community, including after-hours programming for children and family enhancement activities.

"The work that's been done from our perspective has had a positive effect … But, there's still so much work to be done," he said.

"The agency and the community has tried to respond in most appropriate way that they can."

Grieving grandfather

Cyril Muskego of Pimicikamak lost his 21-year-old granddaughter, Anita Scatch, to suicide in December.

"It was a very tragic moment of my life," he said, speaking quietly.

Muskego said Scatch was in foster care for nine years, moving from home to home with "no place to stay."

"Up to this day, I don't know why she did this," he said.

"My life has never been the same since she's gone. It has been very lonely. I cry all the time, visit her grave. My heart goes out to youths of Cross Lake."

Crisis spreads

Ten members of Manitoba's Shamattawa community tried to take their own lives in the first 10 days of January, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson said.

North Wilson also reported one suicide on Manitoba's Northlands First Nation.

"A lot of it has to do with despair and poverty and lack of opportunities that we see in our north," she said.

"Now it's showing up in the lives of our young people."

North Wilson said the help communities need extends beyond that related to mental wellness.

"We need to provide opportunities and give them the same fighting chance to succeed in life as we do in urban areas for our youth there," she said.

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If you or anyone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, these resources are available:​

With files from Karen Pauls, Chris Glover and Cameron MacIntosh