Saskatchewan

Pandemic worsening already dire northern suicide crisis, Lac La Ronge band councillor says

A Lac La Ronge Indian Band councillor drove nearly seven hours to Regina from Sucker River Reserve in Northern Saskatchewan to raise the alarm about the worsening suicide crisis in his community.

Provincial action needed on suicide prevention programs: Band Councillor Devin Bernatchez

Lac La Ronge Indian Band Councillor Devin Bernatchez attended Tuesday's question period in the Legislature to call for government action on suicide prevention. (Matt Duguid/CBC)

A Lac La Ronge Indian Band councillor drove nearly seven hours to Regina from Sucker River Reserve in Northern Saskatchewan to raise the alarm about the worsening suicide crisis in his community.

Devin Bernatchez attended Tuesday's question period in the legislature to call for government action on suicide prevention. He says the pandemic has worsened the already dire situation in the north. 

"We hear a lot about this reconciliation from this government. But we don't see any reconcili-action. We don't see any action coming when it comes to suicide prevention," said Bernatchez.

Bernatchez says during the pandemic, the loss of jobs, lack of extracurricular activities as well as the switch to online learning have likely contributed to overdoses and a lack of hope among northern youth. 

"We buried young people in the north this year, and we're always looking for supports. We're looking for ideas, we're looking at ways to prevent this."

Bernatchez is a hockey coach and teaches golf. He says he works to help young people stay busy so they stay away from drugs and alcohol. But he says mental health and suicide prevention training is badly needed, even for himself. 

The Pillars of Life plan

Bernatchez invited Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Everett Hindley to visit his home community of Sucker River and witness the crisis firsthand. He says the northern community has had two suicides in the last month alone, as well as drug overdoses. 

Bernatchez says he lost a cousin five weeks ago, but wouldn't speak on the loss further.

Legislation that requires the government to develop a strategy for suicide prevention passed in the Saskatchewan Legislature in April after failing on two previous attempts. But Bernatchez says he and his community are not familiar with the province's suicide prevention plan The Pillars of Life.

"I heard the minister talk about this Pillars of Life, this program. And we want to see how we can collaborate. Come and meet with us. Come onto our reserve, come to our communities. Don't be scared to come on the rez ... let's see how we can help people out."

Doyle Vermette, Opposition critic for mental health and addictions, has long been an advocate for suicide prevention efforts. (Matt Duguid/CBC)

According to the provincial government, the pillars of the Saskatchewan plan include specialized supports, training, awareness and research.

Doyle Vermette, Opposition critic for mental health and addictions, echoed Bernatchez's thoughts on The Pillars of Life plan.

"I haven't heard anyone talking about Pillars of Life back home where I've heard families and seen them suffer ... [The province] has passed a law. I will hold them accountable," Vermette said. 

"We've had too many suicides. We've had too many people dealing with mental health and addictions in the north."

On Monday Hindley said that while there is much work to be done on suicide prevention, progress is being made. Meanwhile, Bernatchez says he has not seen any progress firsthand.

Hindley pointed to an additional $1 million committed for the Pillars of Life program. He also said there may be additional spending coming in the next provincial budget. 

"We've invested some record amounts of funding into into mental health and addictions programs and supports this year. But we know that there's challenges over and above that as well," Hindley said. 

Everett Hindley, minister for addictions and mental health, was invited to visit Lac La Ronge Indian Band communities as their suicide crisis worsens. (Matt Duguid/CBC)

While he says youth suicide and drug use is a problem all over Saskatchewan, Hindley admitted that the north has its own challenges due to a lack of access to services. 

"I don't disagree that there are different challenges in different parts of the province, regardless of where you live. It makes it unique. So that's what makes it additionally complicated. I think the challenge for us as government and those trying to provide those supports is trying to tailor those services to that particular community," said Hindley. 

He says the pandemic has intensified the situation due to health care and mental health services being either delayed or put on hold.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura is a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan. She is also the community reporter for CBC's virtual road trip series Land of Living Stories. Laura previously worked for CBC Vancouver. Some of her former work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, NYLON Magazine, VICE Canada and The Tyee. She holds a Master of Journalism degree from the University of British Columbia. Follow Laura on Twitter: @MeLaura. Send her news tips at laura.sciarpelletti@cbc.ca

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