Cree communities launched and funded own inquiry into 'suicide pandemic'

Seven Cree communities in Northern Ontario established their own inquiry to find out why hundreds were attempting to take their own lives. But a "suicide pandemic" continues to grip the communities, where five people have taken their lives in just the past three months.

Faced with hundreds of suicide attempts, Mushkegowuk Council launched The Peoples Inquiry

Since 2009, approximately 600 people have attempted to take their own lives in Mushkegowuk territory along the western coast of James Bay. (Treaty 9 Diaries)

They established their own inquiry to find out why hundreds were attempting to take their own lives, but a "suicide pandemic" continues to grip seven Cree communities in Northern Ontario.

Five people have taken their lives in the past three months.

"My future is dying right in front of me," says Jonathan Solomon, Grand Chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, which first declared a state of emergency six years ago.

Just over 6,000 people live in the communities, which dot the western coast of James Bay. But between 2009 and 2011, there were over 600 suicide attempts, with many ending their lives.

In 2013, the Mushkegowuk Council established a People's Inquiry to explore the roots of the suicide crisis and hear how community members wanted to address it.

That inquiry has released its final report and the Mushkoweguk Council wants action.

The People's Inquiry

Without government funding, the Mushkegowuk raised their own money to select four commissioners, hold public hearings and hire Moose Cree First Nation member Nellie Trapper as the co-ordinator.

I saw my own family go through the grief, all the anger.- Nellie Trapper, inquiry co-ordinator

"I actually have personal experience; I lost my son to suicide," Trapper says. "Jan. 4, 2009. He had just turned 17."

That loss drove her to be involved with the People's Inquiry and also helped her relate to the over 230 people who shared their own stories during the public hearings, which took place in all seven of the Mushkegowuk communities. 

"I saw my own family go through the grief, all the anger."

Next steps

When the commissioners released their final report in January 2016, among other things, it pointed to the history of residential schools, the loss of language and culture, and substance abuse as factors leading to suicide. But it also included practical steps individuals, leaders, and communities could take to combat the problem. 

Individuals were asked to seek counselling if they've suffered sexual abuse. They're urged to learn the Cree language or to find ways to be self-sufficient when it comes to housing, like "living off the grid."

Communities were encouraged to set up support networks for men, women, youth, and elders, introduce cultural activities and Cree immersion into schools and promote indigenous-based healing. 

Leaders were asked to be more supportive of LGBT or two-spirited community members, find resources for counselling and allocate funding to cultural activities.

Trapper says her community, Moose Cree First Nation, has already begun to take the People's Inquiry recommendations into consideration when crafting mental wellness policies. She hopes other Mushkegowuk communities will follow suit after an upcoming First Nation health summit taking place in Timmins at the end of March.

"The inquiry is done. Now is this going to just sit on the shelf and collect dust or are you going to implement?"

But Trapper also says those communities should get the financial resources from government to make that happen.

Ongoing emergency

While the inquiry has wrapped, the state of emergency still stands and was recently reissued after the deaths of five people in Mushkegowuk communities since Christmas.

"We're beginning to see even older folks take their lives," Solomon says. "That's a very sad situation."

NDP MP Charlie Angus, whose riding includes those communities, raised the issue in the House of Commons on Feb. 25, calling on the federal government to meet with Mushkegowuk leaders and increase health funding to First Nations across Northern Ontario.

"What commitment will they make to close that gap in the coming budget and why will they not meet with the leadership now and commit to ending this discrimination once and for all?" said Angus.

With files from The Current