Attawapiskat suicide emergency: Health Canada, province send in crisis teams

Crisis teams are being deployed to a small, troubled First Nation in northern Ontario where more than 100 people have tried to take their own life in the past seven months.

Officials say 11 people attempted to take their own life on Saturday alone

Attawapiskat's latest spate of suicide attempts

8 years ago
Duration 1:55
Chief Bruce Shisheesh desperate for mental health services after 11 attempts on Saturday night alone, declares state of emergency

Crisis teams are being deployed to a small, troubled First Nation in northern Ontario where more than 100 people have tried to take their own life in the past seven months.

Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh said a state of emergency has been declared in the community, where on Saturday night alone 11 people tried to commit suicide.

Health Canada has sent additional mental health counsellors into the James Bay community and the province is sending an emergency medical assistance team.

But the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations says long-term support for the community is needed in addition to immediate action.

Perry Bellegarde said Attawapiskat represents a national tragedy and that the situation is too common in indigenous communities.

"We need a sustained commitment to address long-standing issues that lead to hopelessness among our peoples, particularly the youth," Bellegarde said in a release Monday.

He noted that Pimicikamak Cree Nation in Manitoba declared a state of emergency last month in response to youth suicides.

Shisheesh said a horrible event last fall was the beginning of what has become a frightening trend in Attawapiskat.

"From September 2015, we had five teenage girls that tried to overdose themselves with an unknown number of medications," he told CBC News.

The girls were flown from the community for treatment.

Social workers 'burned out'

Shisheesh said there are no specialized mental health workers in the community to help with the crisis.

"We need a mental health worker, we need a youth worker," he said. "We need training dollars to train up our workers."

Attawapiskat resident Jackie Hookimaw, whose 13-year-old great-niece took her own life in October, said the community doesn't have the resources to deal with the crisis.

The remains of a Canadian flag can be seen flying over a building in Attawapiskat, Ont. Mental health nurses and social workers are being flown to the remote James Bay community of about 2,000. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

That sentiment was echoed by the local MP, New Democrat Charlie Angus, who said northern communities aren't given the resources they need.

Angus said it has been a "rolling nightmare" of more and more suicide attempts among young people throughout the winter.

He said the community didn't think it could get any worse than it was in March, but April brought even more suicide attempts.

Shisheesh said tensions are also rising because of overcrowding, unemployment and drug abuse — and social workers in the community of about 2,000 are burned out.

On Twitter, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the news from Attawapiskat "heartbreaking."

Also on Twitter, child advocate Cindy Blackstock said the suicide attempts in Attawapiskat "will continue to happen until equitable services [are] provided in all areas of kids' experience."

With files from Kate Rutherford, Olivia Stefanovich, The Canadian Press