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Attawapiskat working on plan to address youth suicide crisis

About 18 additional people — including a crisis co-ordinator, two youth support workers and a psychologist — have been deployed as temporary crisis relief since a state of emergency was declared in Attawapiskat, Ont., Health Canada says.

Provincial Minister of Health Dr. Eric Hoskins heads to remote northern Ontario First Nation today

Pamela Palmater, an associate professor who holds the chair in indigenous governance at Ryerson University, discusses the crisis in Attawapiskat and other First Nations communities 5:18

Everyone in Attawapiskat knows someone who's tried to commit suicide.

The remote northern Ontario First Nation of about 2,000 is facing a suicide crisis among its youth. Mental health workers have been flown in to help, kicking off some difficult conversations with young people about what's causing them to want to end their lives.

At a prayer walk in the community Tuesday night, 13-year-old Ciarra Nakogee told CBC News she came out to show other people her age there is hope.

"We're all pulling together ... and I like that," she said.

Nakogee walked in front of the procession of more than 100 people as they prayed and lit candles in front of the community church. They listened to words of comfort from community leaders.

"You can make it. You can make it through everything. Even though be things are hard, you'll get through it."

Nakogee said she knows people who've tried to take their own lives — people who've been affected by long-standing social issues, such as family conflicts and bullying.

Ontario's Minister of Health Eric Hoskins is heading to Attawapiskat. The CBC's Olivia Stefanovich is there. She told us more about what the trip entails and about some plans to help the youth of that community. 7:29

Encouraged by work being done

Eighteen-year-old Josh Taylor said there isn't much for people his age to do right now in Attawapiskat.

"Youth walk around at night," he said. "They set garbage cans on fire."

But Taylor said he feels encouraged by the work that's being done in the community this week.

Mental health counsellors who've been specially flown in are planning to open a drop-in centre. They are also establishing a youth council and encouraging young people to take responsibility for it.  

People of all ages took part in a candlelight suicide awareness walk Tuesday night in Attawapiskat, Ont. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

This comes as Ontario's provincial health minister flies into Attawapiskat later this morning.

Dr. Eric Hoskins is planning to meet with people who are trying to help the youth, and to determine what other support is needed.

More 'aggressive' efforts needed

Health Canada said Tuesday that roughly 18 additional people — including a crisis co-ordinator, two youth support workers and a psychologist — had been deployed as temporary crisis relief since a state of emergency was declared in Attawapiskat.

But Keith Conn, an assistant deputy minister for the department's First Nations and Inuit Health branch, stressed "more aggressive" efforts must be made to meet the community's mental health needs in the long term.

The emotional distress of the teens and the dearth of resources in place to help them is a direct result of more than a century's worth of fraught relations between First Nations communities and the federal government, one leader said.

CBC's Diana Swain talks with Chiefs of Ontario Isadore Day on what can be done to help the community 5:58

Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day said the pervasive ills plaguing aboriginal Canadians can be traced back to the Indian Act of 1876, which is marking its 140th anniversary.

Day said the act, which effectively transferred all decisions affecting First Nations to officials in Ottawa, set the stage for decades of turmoil, including residential schools, where young aboriginals endured horrific abuse.

Those experiences are at the heart of issues that include addiction, poor health and unemployment, all of which tend to converge on Canadian reserves that include Attawapiskat, Day said. Officials responsible for collecting demographic data on Attawapiskat did not respond to requests for information.

Governments are still controlling the flow of money going to troubled First Nations, Day said, adding that until that stops, nothing can significantly change.

"There's a lot to be said about the link between control of resources ... and the actual ability with those resources to have types of programs and services that are needed," he said.

At the mercy of governments?

Financial resources are not as scarce for Attawapiskat as they are for other communities.

In 2008, global diamond giant De Beers began production at its Victor Mine, 90 kilometres west of Attawapiskat. It provides employment and royalties to the community, including contributing to a trust fund which is now reportedly at $13 million.

However, Day said that First Nations are still at the mercy of governments and other partnerships that allocate amounts well short of what's actually needed to address long-standing issues.

Day pointed to a community plan for Attawapiskat in 2011 that earmarked $2.7 million for repairs of dilapidated housing, but said the same plan also identified the cost of a complete overhaul as closer to $60 million.

Mental health resources are in a similar state of crisis on the reserve.

We go inside Attawapiskat, the First Nation that is under-resourced and overwhelmed by a suicide crisis. 2:39

'We need more help'

The Attawapiskat chief declared a state of emergency Saturday evening, citing the community's 11 suicide attempts so far in the month of April and 28 recorded attempts in March.

Anna Betty Achneepineskum, a deputy grand chief with Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a political organization that represents 49 First Nations communities including Attawapiskat, had already made plans a month ago to come into the community to talk about the crisis when the latest wave of suicide attempts was reported.

"There is no youth mental health worker, there is no recreation co-ordinator," she said. "There's a few people that are taking it upon themselves to organize little activities for the young people, but we need more help."

Day said he senses a new spirit of co-operation among government officials along with heightened awareness in the Canadian public at large. Such sentiments will be key to making long-lasting changes, he added.

"It's going to be based on how fast the action will occur, how much the government will veer away from its old top-down approach and actually include us in discussions that will affect our lives," Day said.

No quick fixes

A former prime minister who dealt with similar issues during his tenure said Tuesday there are no quick fixes.

"It's an extremely difficult problem," Jean Chretien said. "I was with this problem in 1968, a long time ago. It takes time and patience, and there's always tragedies of that nature that occur and the government has to do its best to cure it. But it's not easy."

Corrections

  • An earlier version wrongly attributed some information to Ontario's Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle. He did not say Attawapiskat receives $2 million in revenue share from the Victor Mine.
    Apr 13, 2016 2:35 PM ET

With files from Olivia Stefanovich, and The Canadian Press