Saskatoon

Sask. First Nations facing 'state of crisis' after 4 youth suicides

North Saskatchewan communities learned Tuesday that a 10-year-old girl in Deschambault Lake had taken her own life. The news came as people were still reeling from the suicides of three girls, ages 12 to 14, who died in the span of four days.

Call to improve Indigenous health care grows louder after 4 northern Saskatchewan suicides

Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson says her community is facing a state of crisis. (Devin Heroux/CBC)

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) says it is facing "a state of crisis" after four young children committed suicide this month in northern Saskatchewan.

People learned on Tuesday that a 10-year-old girl in Deschambault Lake had taken her own life. The news came as people were still reeling from the suicides of three girls, ages 12 to 14, who died in the span of four days. Those girls were from Stanley Mission and La Ronge.

"Everyone is committed to ensuring that we don't lose anymore youth. We don't want that to happen," FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron told reporters.

FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron has request a face-to-face meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (CBC)

Cameron says the group has made a request to have a face-to-face meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other MPs, "to really sit down and have an immediate investment of the opportunities for cultural-related activities, sports and recreation activities, they have to be offered to our youth."

The chief of one affected community said something needs to be done.

"We are in crisis mode. We are starting the process of dealing with this sudden tragedy," said Cree Nation Chief Peter Beatty in a statement. "In the interim, we are assisting the family and community in dealing with the death of one so young. In the long term, we need to develop a strategy that incorporates an inclusive and holistic approach to addressing these terrible tragedies."

The chiefs clarified they still haven't declared an official state of emergency, which would officially ask provincial and federal governments for money to deal with the situation. 

Meanwhile, communities in the north have since banded together, coordinating services as additional mental health support is sent to the area. More mental health therapists and workers, psychologists, nursing staff and health managers have all been made available.

Health Canada has also announced that seven mental health professionals will travel to Stanley Mission every week, until the end of the year, to counsel at-risk youth. Two additional workers from Pelican Narrows have been sent to Deschambault Lake for immediate support.

An emergency operations centre has been also set up in La Ronge.

"Everybody's been doing a lot of good work and there's a lot of work that's been done already, but it's just coordinating all the efforts," said Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson.

People came together in La Ronge, Sask. Friday night for a candlelight vigil in memory of three young girls. (Don Somers/CBC)

She said along with offers from the federal and provincial governments, people across Canada have been reaching out.

Greg Ottenbreit, the provincial minister responsible for rural and remote health, said a working group has already been put together to determine if support needs are being met in northern Saskatchewan.

"They're focusing on this situation, in particular, but making sure all the community resources are utilized in an efficient manner," Ottenbreit said.

Looking at critical needs

Margaret Kress, an assistant professor who works in the area of Indigenous education and wellness at the University of New Brunswick, was part of a team that researched health services in northern Saskatchewan, to assess current services and pinpoint shortfalls.

The team found critical gaps in treatment for depression and addiction, suicide prevention resources, and anti-bullying initiatives.

We know what the needs of our people are. We live there.- Ted Quewezance

"Those three things were really kind of highlighted and people were really concerned about those issues."

The team developed a model for how to address the region's needs. It proposed a healing centre in La Ronge that would act as a hub for mental health services.

It also proposed that smaller communities should each have a safe house or a healing home that would be connected to the larger centre in La Ronge.

Kress emphasized that it's important to get grassroots input from the Woodland Cree people in order to provide the effective services ranging from addictions treatment to parent education.

Ted Quewezance, former chief of the Keeseekoose First Nation, agrees.

"We know what the needs of our people are. We live there."

While it's helpful to have additional therapists and support workers during a crisis, Quewezance says he questions how effective they can be if they leave soon after.

Funding a challenge

Kress said this is a case where better funding can help.

We need programs that go beyond the four-year political mandate.- Caroline Tait

"There simply is not enough people on the ground, in place in these communities because of the funding sources that are currently offered to First Nations in Canada," Kress said.

Caroline Tait, a psychiatry professor with the University of Saskatchewan's College of Medicine, said the current funding model can sometimes add pressure to an Indigenous community instead of relief.

"The communities are constantly having to respond and justify for everything that they get. So there's a huge amount of burden on them."

Adults and children came to the La Ronge Alliance Church to make cards and sign a mural in support of the families of the three girls who had committed suicide in the area. (Devin Heroux/CBC)

Tait said she sees the need for better relationships between governments and Indigenous communities — where politics are kept separate.  

"These communities know what the answers are to their problems. They have huge amounts of knowledge about supporting youth."

Mental health resources are available through the region's Healthline at 811.

The federal government set up a toll-free number for First Nations and Inuit people who are experiencing mental health issues on Oct. 1. As of Thursday morning, it had received a total of 44 calls. The number is 1-855-242-3310.

If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them, says the Canadian Association of Suicide Prevention.

Here are some of the warning signs: 

  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Purposelessness.
  • Anxiety.
  • Feeling trapped.
  • Hopelessness and helplessness.
  • Withdrawal.
  • Anger.
  • Recklessness.
  • Mood changes.

About the Author

After spending five years in radio, Courtney Markewich joined CBC Saskatoon in 2016. She is currently a Social Media News Editor/Presenter for @CBCSask and @CBCSaskatoon.

With files from CBC's Devin Heroux, Alicia Bridges and The Afternoon Edition