'I'm tired, I'm hurt,' says Shamattawa First Nation chief after declaring state of emergency

A northern Manitoba First Nation, recently hit by a major fire that left several families without homes, has declared a state of emergency.

2nd Manitoba First Nation to declare a state of emergency in the past week

A man with short black hair, dark frame glasses and a green jacket speaks into microphones at a media event.
Jordna Hill, chief of Shamattawa First Nation, speaks to media on Monday in Winnipeg. Hill called a state of emergency on Monday following a major fire and recent suicides in the community. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details:

A northern Manitoba First Nation reeling from several recent suicides and a major fire that left several families without homes has declared a state of emergency.

Chief Jordna Hill declared a state of emergency for Shamattawa First Nation on Monday.

During a news conference, he explained the move was in response to several suicides in recent weeks, as well as a fire that destroyed homes of eight families at a time when the community was down on fire-fighting equipment.

"These services are things that other communities are provided with, and we seem to have to fight for them," he said.

"Violence in Shamattawa all stems from social issues. Housing is overcrowded and leads to family pressure which fuels addictions. I fear this may only be the starting point, sadly, unless something is done immediately."

Hill said 70 per cent of the local population is under the age of 30. 

Aerial view of a First Nation, the horizon, wing of a plane.
Chief Jordna Hill says a broad set of social challenges affect youth in Shamattawa First Nation, seen here from the air in December 2020. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

He suggested the latest tragedies fit into a broader set of social challenges facing young people in Shamattawa who "need a future" but "can't see beyond the trees" surrounding Shamattawa, about 350 kilometres southeast of Churchill and 745 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg

He said the rising cost of living — combined with inadequate recreational and education opportunities in the remote community — adds to existing pressures stemming from the intergenerational trauma of residential schools and the Sixties Scoop.

"There is no support for parents and children and it has disconnected our people," Hill said. "It's not just the language and values. It's the connections between parents and children we are dealing with."

Hill shared the story of a young girl who died by suicide a few weeks ago, and said just last Wednesday, the mother also died by suicide.

"I'm tired, I'm hurt and I'm pissed off."

No equipment for fires

The fire that left eight families without homes started Thursday morning and razed a multi-unit building in the community. Everyone got out of the building safely.

A building is engulfed in flames at night.
The fire, which destroyed a multi-unit building, burns on Shamattawa First Nation on Thursday morning. (Submitted by Jordna Hill)

At the time, Hill said the First Nation has no equipment to fight such fires. It has one fire truck, but that was waiting to be repaired in Winnipeg at the time, Hill said.

The lack of equipment meant the only thing the community could do was let the fire burn itself out, Hill said.

The situation is urgent because the winter road season is coming to an end, leaving little time to get housing trailers into the community for the residents, Hill said. Shamattawa has no year-round road connection to larger centres.

Smoke billows from a house fire.
Smoke rises from one of the buildings as it burns in Shamattawa. (Submitted by Hannah Enns)

Shamattawa is the second Manitoba First Nation to declare a state of emergency in the past week.

O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation, about 130 kilometres northwest of Thompson, announced their declaration on March 7 following the recent deaths of three people.

Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Cathy Merrick and other First Nations leaders sat next to Hill as he took long pauses between sharing details of the recent events during the Monday news conference.

Merrick said there aren't enough mental health and other supports in Shamattawa that urban communities take for granted.

"Our people are in despair," she said. "The governments need to wake up and provide for our First Nation people."

A woman with dark shoulder-length hair and a blue denim jacket wipes away tears from her eyes.
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Cathy Merrick speaks through tears at the news conference in Winnipeg on Monday after urging the provincial and federal governments to better support remote First Nation communities such as Shamattawa. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

She said this isn't the first time Shamattawa has called a state of emergency in connection with suicides.

"It seems so normal to hear that now, and it shouldn't be," she said. 

"Hopelessness has taken our people to a place where they don't need to be, and that hopelessness results from the lack of adequate services."

Chief Shirley Ducharme of O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation is calling for the federal and provincial governments to provide immediate help in the form of crisis supports for people battling trauma, addiction and mental health issues.

Grand Chief Garrison Settee of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, a political advocacy organization that represents 26 First Nations in northern Manitoba, said what's unfolding is a product of "years of neglect" by governments that are failing to financially support remote communities such as Shamattawa.

"The social impacts that this has brought to their First Nation has been devastating," Settee said. 

"What will it take for governments to respond? What will it take for the government to provide the adequate support systems to this First Nation?"

Shamattawa First Nation chief declares state of emergency

3 months ago
Duration 2:22
A northern Manitoba First Nation reeling from several recent suicides and a major fire that left several families without homes has declared a state of emergency.

If you or someone you know is struggling, here's where to get help:

This guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health outlines how to talk about suicide with someone you're worried about.