'We are hurting': As Sask. First Nations grapple with suicides, feds announce $2.5M in prevention funding

One by one, chiefs from all over Saskatchewan spent Friday morning sharing stories about how suicide has impacted their communities

Indigenous Services minister says money to be spent over 2 years on First Nations across province

Chief Margaret Bear says volunteers have been staffing phones around the clock, as Ochapowace First Nation has started its own volunteer phone help line for young people. (Chelsea Laskowski/CBC)

The chief of a Saskatchewan First Nation that just declared a state of emergency over suicides was among those who shared stories Thursday of how the deaths have affected their communities, as the federal government announced $2.5 million in funding targeted toward Indigenous suicide prevention.

Chief Margaret Bear says four men have died by suicide over the past three months on Ochapowace First Nation, about 175 kilometres east of Regina. Earlier this week, Ochapowace declared a state of emergency following the deaths.

That follows an emergency declaration last month in Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation, in the province's northwest, after three suicides there — one of which involved a 10-year-old girl.

Bear was one of many chiefs from all over the province who shared their stories at a Thursday morning news conference at the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations head office in Saskatoon.

Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller announced $2.5 million in federal funding for what the government calls the Youth Empowerment and Healing Wellness Fund. A news release says the fund is intended to prevent further harms and deaths for First Nations children and youth in the province.

The new funding will, in part, support implementation of a suicide prevention strategy that the FSIN created last year.

Fresh wounds

Bear spoke tearfully, saying the announcement comes at an emotional time on Ochapowace. The deaths there have involved men between the ages of 30 and 45, whom she described as the First Nation's warriors.

"We buried our fourth one about a week ago. So it's very difficult for my people back home.… Today, we are hurting," she said.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller looked on as Fond du Lac Chief Louis Mercredi called on the province to match the federal government's $2.5 million in funding. (Chelsea Laskowski/CBC)

Almost all the chiefs present said they have experienced what one of the people at the news conference called a "perpetual state of crisis" when it comes to suicides.

"The community just acts. We are so familiar with this thing, how to deal with it," Fond du Lac Chief Louis Mercredi said.

"No one in this world should have the experience that we have."

Indigenous people in Canada have a suicide rate three times higher than non-Indigenous people, according to Statistics Canada.

But behind every statistic is a face, said Miller, who was named Indigenous Services minister on Nov. 20. He said Thursday that just hours after receiving his new portfolio, he learned of the suicide of the 10-year-old girl on Makwa Sahgaiehcan.

"This isn't something that's new. It is something that is shocking. Particularly as a father of three children that are adolescents, it affects me on a personal basis," he said.

He said it's government's responsibility to not just respond in times of crisis, but to get ahead of crises and prevent them in the first place.

Does province play a role?

Makwa Sahgaiehcan Chief Ronald Mitsuing said he's not really after money, but the funding is a good start.

He envisions the new funding being used to train residents of the reserve to help families take care of themselves. Mitsuing emphasized the importance of learning how to tell when youths are having troubling thoughts, and how to support them.

"When I'm talking to [a young person], they seem happy, but I don't know what they're thinking inside. So next thing you know, they're gone," he said.

Chief Bear thanked the federal government for its help. Ochapowace has started its own volunteer phone help line to offer another option to young people who need someone to talk to.

Fond du Lac's Mercredi said the province should match the $2.5 million in funding. Melville-Saltcoats MLA Warren Kaeding responded that there are already initiatives across provincial ministries focused on young people.

When asked if there should be more fund-matching programs that target gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, he said "we can't just throw money at the problem."

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron says the federal investment is the right move, because it will give First Nations the opportunity to find their solutions from within.

If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, help is available.

For an emergency or crisis situation, call 911.

You can also contact the Saskatchewan suicide prevention line toll-free, 24/7 by calling 1-833-456-4566, texting 45645, or chatting online.

You can contact the Regina mobile crisis services suicide line at 306-525-5333 or Saskatoon mobile crisis line at 306-933-6200.

You can also text CONNECT to 686868 and get immediate support from a crisis responder through the Crisis Text Line, powered by Kids Help Phone.

Kids Help Phone can also be reached at 1-800-668-6868, or you can access live chat counselling at