Poverty, inequality fuelling suicide crisis, First Nations leader says

Two communities in crisis in two provinces serve as a stark reminder that suicide, especially among indigenous youth, remains an enormous problem across the country. But without first addressing poverty, the problem will continue, says a Manitoba First Nation leader.

Government must do more than respond to emergencies, says Northern Manitoba grand chief

An estimated 1,000 people from Pimicikamak (Cross Lake, Man.) participated in a suicide-prevention walk on March 10. (Facebook)

Two communities in crisis in two provinces serve as a stark reminder that suicide, especially among indigenous youth, remains an enormous problem across the country. But without first addressing poverty, the problem will continue, says a Manitoba First Nations leader.

"We're seeing evidence of despair and poverty in our communities," says Sheila North Wilson, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak. The organization represents northern First Nations in the province.

"The lack of opportunities and resources that are afforded to the rest of Canadians are not being afforded to our people."

In the Northern Manitoba community of Cross Lake, the Cree government of Pimicikamak recently declared a state of emergency after five people killed themselves since Christmas.

In Northern Ontario, communities that dot the coast of James Bay are also dealing with a rash of suicides that Cree leaders say is part of a pandemic.

And similar alarms have been raised in recent months and years, across the country.

Suicide pandemic

"No family can say, 'Not my family,'" says Rick Lightning, a grief counsellor and elder who lives in Maskwacis, Alta., where close to 40 people have taken their own lives since 2013.

"No family is safe. It doesn't matter what economic base you come from."  

In January, First Nations in Northwestern Ontario called for emergency relief after several young people, including a 10-year-old girl, killed themselves in a span of weeks.

A 2010 report found that the suicide rate for children under 15 in some of those Ontario First Nations is more than 50 times the national average.

In October 2015, Nunavut's premier declared suicide a crisis in the territory. Inuit in Nunavut take their own lives at nearly 10 times the rate of other Canadians.

'Complex and devastating issue'

In almost every one of these tragedies, the response from authorities has been the same. The community calls for help and the federal or provincial governments offer some kind of short-term relief, like trauma counsellors or crisis response teams.

Health Canada says the department is working with the Assembly of First Nations to implement a "First Nations Mental Wellness Continuum Framework," which will promote a culturally relevant approach to First Nations mental health.

In an email, the department also says that last year, $300-million was spent on mental wellness programs for First Nations and Inuit communities.

A spokesperson also said that over $13-million goes toward the National Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy, which has been in place since 2004 and supports over 130 community-based suicide prevention projects across Canada.

"Suicide is a complex and devastating issue that requires a comprehensive, multifaceted response targeting prevention, intervention and aftercare," the email reads.

'Abject poverty'

Tackling the problem of suicide will take more than a temporary fix, says North Wilson.

"We need comprehensive solutions to start addressing the abject poverty in our communities," she says. "The lack of resources, the lack of opportunities for our young people."

Overcrowded housing, lack of clean drinking water and crumbling infrastructure on reserves must be fixed if lives are to be improved.

North Wilson says it's frustrating to see poverty and hopelessness in a community like Cross Lake, which has had a hydroelectric dam right next door for decades. It's the same for several other communities in Northern Manitoba and across Canada.

"The resources that are coming from territories are not being shared with our people," she says. "We're still the poorest in our nation and that shouldn't be that way."

Searching for answers

In 2010, the Mushkegowuk Council, made up of Cree communities in Northern Ontario, declared a state of emergency over suicides. The council estimates that in the past decade, nearly 600 Cree people in their communities have attempted to take their own lives.

Three years after the state of emergency was called, plans were made to hold a "People's Inquiry" to seek answers for why so many were choosing suicide.

"The Mushkegowuk were forced to take the situation into our own hands," said Mushkegowuk Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon. "We didn't want to see any more of our family members and children die." 

That inquiry, which was conducted entirely with funds raised by the community, finished its work in 2015 and released its findings in January.

Among other things, the report 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 steps communities can take to combat the problem. 

The government of Nunavut recently laid out a one-year plan to stop more deaths by suicide, born out of a coroner's inquest on the territory's ongoing suicide crisis.

The plan includes eight commitments to improving mental health services and having government, Inuit and community organizations work together to tackle the problem.

"We don't need people to come into our communities and tell us what the solutions are, we have them," says North Wilson.

"We just need partners to help make them a reality."

With files from CBC Manitoba, CBC Edmonton, CBC North