Saskatchewan

Makwa Sahgaiehcan chief disappointed at lack of long-term help to stop suicides

With his community in the middle of a devastating suicide crisis, the chief of the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation in Saskatchewan has made the six-hour drive to the provincial legislature looking for a prevention strategy.

Province has deployed 11 crisis counsellors but Ronald Mitsuing says a long-term prevention strategy is needed

Ronald Mitsuing called for long-term supports from the provincial and federal governments. (Don Somers/CBC)

The chief of a northern Saskatchewan First Nation says he is disappointed at the lack of long-term help from the provincial and federal governments to deal with what he says is a suicide crisis.

Ronald Mitsuing of the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation, along with another band leader, met in Regina on Wednesday with ministers and the deputy premier.

The leaders are concerned about what they are calling "cluster suicides" in their community near Loon Lake, about 360 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.

They say there have been three suicides, including one by a 10-year-old girl, in three weeks and eight suicide attempts, mostly by young people.

Kids are losing their lives and, if they keep waiting, it's going to happen again.- Ronald Mitsuing

Mitsuing said he asked Premier Scott Moe and officials for help now, as well as for a long-term suicide prevention strategy to help all First Nations.

"Things are happening now. They can't wait anymore," he said. "Kids are losing their lives and, if they keep waiting, it's going to happen again."

Saskatchewan Health Authority officials sent to help his community will eventually leave and temporary assistance isn't enough to prevent future deaths, Mitsuing said.

He wants community members to be trained in how to spot signs of suicidal thoughts and how to properly respond.

"Right now our teachers are also burning out over there. They're stressed. Our whole community, front-line workers, are stressed."

Rural and Remote Health Minister Warren Kaeding said the first step was to provide immediate help, which has been done, and then to plan for any medium- and long-term solutions.

"It's a little early in the juncture to determine what those services are, but that's something that's going to be community-led, and we'll certainly have those conversations with officials," he said.

Makwa Sahgaiehcan, a community of 1,000 people, has experienced seven suicides in the last two years, with three coming in recent weeks, including a 10-year-old girl who took her own life on Thursday. (Morgan Modjeski/CBC)

The Ministry of Health is reviewing its services and looking at what is offered elsewhere in Canada.

The Opposition NDP has put forward a private member's bill that would create a suicide prevention strategy. Its leader says the Saskatchewan Party government has failed to act to reduce poverty and develop economic opportunities in the north.

"Nothing that we've seen from them so far indicates that they actually take this seriously which ... causes me to wonder whether this is something they care about," said Ryan Meili.

Band CEO Barry Mitsuing Chalifoux said an ongoing strategy would better help prevent suicide crises and give local governments ideas on what resources could be of help in their communities.

He said federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller called last week to offer his condolences. Chalifoux said he understands work is being done by federal officials to see what support may be coming and he believes they will respond.

"I'm just hoping they do that soon," Chalifoux said. 

The First Nation wants parenting programs and funding to hire additional supports in order to monitor its youth, he said.

In the fall of 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called several suicides by children in northern Saskatchewan a tragedy. Four girls between the ages of 10 and 14 had taken their own lives over a short period of time.

"We continue to be committed to working with Indigenous communities across the country to deal with this ever-occurring tragedy," he said at the time.

Earlier that year, a string of suicide attempts in Attawapiskat in northern Ontario garnered international media attention when the Cree community declared a state of emergency.

Woman starts Christmas card drive for First Nation

Some of the cards people plan to send to Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation School after hearing of Linda Johnson's call out are seen here. (Submitted by Anne Basso, Joan Therens and Lauren Mentiplay)

A woman who used to live on the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation has started a Christmas card campaign to bring hope to the students at the school.

Linda Johnson wanted a way to show students in the community that they are cared about. She said some people were sending love and positive thoughts to students via social media, but some younger students may not have Facebook accounts. 

She is hoping people will write cards to the school to show they care. 

"I hope even just one child, their heart is touched and they feel like they're being thought of and it gives them hope to just keep on keeping on."

The school gave her permission and is looking forward to the cards, she said.

One of the cards that is expected to be sent to Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation is written by Charlene Vaughn. (Submitted by Charlene Vaughn)

Anyone interested in writing a card can send it to: 

Makwa Sahgaiehcan School 
BOX 519 
Loon Lake, Sask. 
SOM1LO 


Where to get help:
Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (text) | http://www.crisisservicescanada.ca/ (chat)
In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (phone), Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca.
Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre.
Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310 or chat online at hopeforwellness.ca.

About the Author

Stephanie Taylor

Reporter/The Canadian Press

Stephanie Taylor is a Canadian Press reporter based in Saskatchewan.

With files from CBC's Heidi Atter and CBC Radio's The Morning Edition