'Ongoing battle': Northern Saskatchewan desperate for more mental health services

Fond-du-Lac Chief Louie Mercredi and FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron are voicing concerns about mental health resources in northern Saskatchewan after the second firefighter in three years takes his own life.

First Nations leaders demand action after 2nd volunteer firefighter takes his own life

Fond-du-Lac Denesuline First Nation Chief Louie Mercredi says he will continue pushing for improvements to mental health resources in his home community. (CBC)

Northern Saskatchewan is in dire need of improved mental health services, Indigenous leaders say.

The call follows the unexpected death of volunteer firefighter Frank Jr. McDonald, 22, who took his own life on on Aug. 4, leaving behind several family members including his parents, siblings and a young daughter.

He's the second Fond-du-Lac firefighter to take his own life in three years. Deajay Mercredi, a volunteer firefighter in his early 20s, died in 2015.

"We need immediate actions taken on this," said Fond-du-Lac Denesuline First Nation Chief Louie Mercredi. "We're losing people."

Fond-du-Lac was also the scene of a plane crash in Dec. 13, 2017. The plane carrying 25 people plunged to the ground shortly after takeoff, sending many to hospital with one person dying from his injuries. 

Since then, mental health concerns have become more apparent than ever in Fond-du-Lac, Mercredi says, adding those concerns existed before the crash as well, calling it an "ongoing battle."

"We need something to take place and hopefully change things around in the community here," he said.

Frank Jr. McDonald, 22, died unexpectedly on Aug. 4. He was a volunteer firefighter in Fond-du-Lac for almost five years before he took his own life. (Submitted by Derek Cook)

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations added its voice to the call for increased mental health support. 

"Our front-line workers are also suffering along with our communities and the need for full-time mental health workers that live and stay in our communities is desperately needed, especially in the far north,"  FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron said in a release.

According to Brad Havervold, an executive director with the Ministry of Health, Fond-du-Lac has one full-time mental health therapist, two addictions support workers and two youth support workers, as well as other professionals who are brought in depending on the needs of the community.

It's not just about dollars. We're not getting our services that we should be getting as treaty members.- Fond-du-Lac Denesuline First Nation Chief Louie Mercredi

Mercredi says that isn't enough. He would also like to see more mental health resources in school, but at this point he says he would take anything they can get.

"It's not just about dollars," Mercredi said. "We're not getting our services that we should be getting as treaty members. We're trying our best at the band level to keep everyone occupied, but we can only do so much."

The Father Gamache Memorial school in Fond-du-Lac recently hired a social worker from the community to work as a guidance councillor.

Deajay Mercredi was a volunteer firefighter in Fond-du-Lac when he died in 2015. (Submitted by Derek Carter)

Concerns in the north

Mercredi says it isn't just Fond-du-Lac that lacks mental health resources, it's the majority of northern Saskatchewan. 

In March, the provincial government said it was working with federal and First Nations leaders to address mental health concerns in northern Saskatchewan.

Havervold says the government committed to an $11.4-million increase to mental health, some of which will go to the Athabasca Health Authority.

Mercredi says he has been in contact with the authority, which is responsible for northern communities.

Extra therapists deployed

Darryl Galusha, CEO of the authority in northern Saskatchewan, says his organization has been bringing extra therapists into the community since last December. The community has a full-time therapist, but coverage is also provided as needed on evenings and weekends.

"If we do see a spike in need, then we provide additional therapists," he said.

For instance, he says, there will be three therapists in the community next week who plan to meet and talk with firefighters and the fire chief.

According to Galusha, mental health issues had not been identified among firefighters as an issue before the deaths.

However, he acknowledges that the north continues to need greater support, which he hopes could be addressed through long-term planning among communities, governments and the health authority.

"We by no means are perfect and we can always increase the service delivery in all of our areas to the communities," he said.

Volunteer firefighters competition

Exactly a week after the Fond-du-Lac volunteer firefighters lost Frank Jr. McDonald to suicide, they competed in a national competition and took home their seventh championship.

"It was hard knowing there was a funeral on the day of the national firefighters competition," said Derek Cook, a 12-year veteran with the volunteer firefighters.

A week after one of their members died, Fond-du-Lac's volunteer firefighters won a national competition. (Submitted by Derek Cook)

Fire Chief Georgie McDonald is the uncle of Frank Jr. McDonald. 

"I sensed the emotional expressions on Georgie and the rest of my teammates that day," Cook said. 

Support from the Fond-du-Lac community and other firefighting teams at the competition helped them pull through, he says.

"I think this win lifted our community's spirit up as they laid Frank to rest on that day," he said.