Thunder Bay

First Nations say suicide crisis requires same response as natural disasters

Some First Nations have been in a state of emergency for years because of suicides now they say social emergencies require the same coordinated response as floods or forest fires.

'Social emergencies summit' aims to create template for government response in First Nations

Attawapiskat First Nation declared a state of emergency over suicide in 2016, but Mushkegowuk Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon says all the help that was offered came, and went. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

A rash of suicides; a car crash that claims multiple members of the same family; the arrival of a new, highly addictive drug — First Nations in northern Ontario say these kinds of social emergencies require the same approach as forest fires or floods.

Ontario's Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act governs how agencies respond to natural disasters in the province. An operations centre supports municipalities in managing situations once a state of emergency is declared.

First Nations in the Treaty 3 and Treaty 9 areas of Ontario are meeting with government officials in Thunder Bay, Ont., this week to develop similar protocols for dealing with "social emergencies."

Mushkegowuk Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon is leading the push for a social emergency protocol for First Nations. (Erik White/CBC)

"Right now people are just all over the place, and that's where a lot of confusion and frustration comes in" when a crisis hits, said Jonathan Solomon, grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, which represents seven First Nations, including Attawapiskat, which declared an emergency over suicides in 2016.

"It would bring more of a sustainable plan. Instead of spending $2 million to send an EMAT [Emergency Medical Assistance Team] into Attawapiskat for a few days and then they're gone and communities are left without anything," he said.

Defining an emergency

An earlier meeting about social emergencies resulted in this draft working definition: "An event or situation, with the exception of natural disasters requiring community evacuations, that exceeds the resources and capacities of a community and requires the immediate response and support of external agencies and service providers."

'Work on these things and don't wait for it to be an emergency,' says Randy Knapaysweet, 28, of Fort Albany First Nation. (Jody Porter/CBC)

For Randy Knapaysweet, that includes "housing, suicide, water — everything that you've been seeing in the papers and everything people have been fighting for. Those are all social emergencies."

The 28-year-old from Fort Albany First Nation was part of a youth panel at this week's meeting and pressed leaders to take preventive steps.

"Why wait for an emergency?" he said. "Work with your youth. Work on these things and don't wait for it to be an emergency."

But Solomon believes a co-ordinated response to social emergencies would bring the resources to prevent future emergencies.

"This would bring training, programs for the front-line workers to continue to work on the situation," he said.

Strengthening ties

The youth panellists said they want a response to social emergencies that strengthens the ties between young people, their community, their elders and their language

Abbii Copenace, 20, said that's what saved her life when she attempted suicide five years ago in her community of Onigaming First Nation.

Abbii Copenace, 20, says cultural traditions and a spirit of caring in Onigaming First Nation helped her recover from a suicide attempt. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Health-care workers from Onigaming came to see her in hospital and "they talked to me and they asked me what can we do to help you so this doesn't happen again," she said.

"All those community supports came together when I was in need, and when this happened to me, everyone was open and everyone helped me," Copenace said.

Now she runs a regular activity night for other youth in her community and regularly attends the traditional ceremonies in Onigaming.

Copenace acknowledges that her First Nation is a healthy community with the capacity to help young people. 

Others, especially remote First Nations, need help to do that.

"It's really challenging, coming from a First Nations level, you're limited, very limited, on resources and there's just so much you can do," Knapaysweet said.

Solomon believes a social emergency plan could change that with targeted investments in times of crisis — and create a template for First Nations and governments across the country to work together.

In a joint statement released at the conclusion of the meeting on Friday afternoon, federal, provincial and First Nations leaders said they hope to finalize a social emergencies protocol "later this spring."