'We are dying': Maskwacis community members overwhelmed by suicides

Maskwacis Indian Health Services mental health worker Rick Lightening said there have been 14 suicides within the four nations that make up Maskwacis since December 2017. He also believes local leadership should call a state of emergency because help is desperately needed.

Community looking for answers after as many as 14 deaths by suicide in less than 2 months

Community members held a vigil to celebrate life in the wake of a wave of recent suicides in Maskwacis, Alta. on Saturday.

Emily Soosay is grieving the loss of her 22-year-old son Luwen Soosay-Morin, who took his life two days before Christmas. Saturday she attended a vigil for a celebration of life following a wave of recent deaths by suicide in her home community of Maskwacis, Alta.

She doesn't want anyone else to die, in what she calls an "epidemic."

"I am broken, hurt. I'm lost. I'm crying out for guidance," she said.

"Right now our nation is in a state of crisis. We're in need of help bad. We are dying. […] The chief should call a state of emergency."

She has lost several family members and friends to suicide over the years — Soosay's cousin also took her life just two weeks after her son. She was too traumatized to attend her cousin's funeral.

Maskwacis Indian Health Services mental health worker Rick Lightning said there have been 14 deaths by suicide within the four nations that make up Maskwacis since December 2017. He also believes local leadership should call a state of emergency because help is desperately needed. 

"It's a cultural crisis and spirituality. There's a spirit here. At night sometimes I can feel the heaviness creep over the land, the dark side running around knocking on the doors and the windows looking for its next victim."

Lightning has witnessed the numbers of suicides rise while growing up in the community with a population of approximately 17,000, and has been personally affected by it. 

His own daughter and granddaughter died by suicide three years ago. At that time suicide was also rampant in Maskwacis with an estimated 70 people taking their lives in less than six months.

"When I was a young kid my dad used to get up at sunrise. He'd sing and he'd pray. He'd say 'I'm not alone. There's many other old people out there that are doing the same as me. We keep the dark side out of here,'" said Lightning.

"It starts with that protective circle," he added, saying he believes a loss of spirituality among young people has contributed to the suicide epidemic. 

There are seven mental health workers that serve Maskwacis from the Indian Health Services centre, but Lightning said they are overloaded. His cell phone rings off the hook, day and night from people reaching out for help.

"People are destitute here. The only people that were doing well are the funeral homes making the money off of us."

He hopes Maskwacis can come together to create a 24-hour youth safe centre. A warm place where individuals can go to talk, share their experiences and be encouraged to not give up.

Soosay also wants to see an emergency youth centre built.

"Our children are crying for help. It's violence, it's poverty — we're facing it all first hand," she said.

"But not just up to chief and council. It's up to us as parents, community members, grassroots people to keep our youth alive and well."

Samson band member Janet Swampy is also familiar with the effects of suicide, having lost six family members. She thinks the healing and intervention needs to come from inside the community.

She says the current system of emergency support is a phone line that connects callers to outside sources who are unfamiliar with Indigenous culture.

"As an Aboriginal individual if I was contemplating suicide and they gave me a suicide hotline, with my experience in the world today being ostracized by the white community, do you honestly think I'm going to grab that phone and talk to someone on the other side that doesn't understand my culture?" asked Janet.

"We need to take care of our own. Have someone on the other end of line that understands us, youth, our elders and the whole community."

Samson band councillor Katherine Swampy agrees that the solution to the current epidemic is community.

I don't want to give suicide any more power.- Emily Soosay

"When people have a connection to each other they are stronger, they feel loved, they have supports to go to when they need help," said Katherine.

"I noticed how scared our people are when they need help. They don't look at hospitals or health centres as a place to go for help if they feel suicidal or depressed; they are afraid they'll be locked up, or if they have kids, they are afraid their children will be taken away by children services."

Her sister attempted suicide on Jan. 8 and is in the process of healing, she said. Katherine too once found herself contemplating suicide after fighting hopelessness.

She doesn't think calling a state of emergency is the answer. In the past the community has asked for outside help, but says it hardly made a difference.

"Off-reserve facilities seem to be failing our people. Maskwacis health centre has counselling, mental health services, and community wellness has programs provided," she said.

In the meantime Soosay is focusing on raising awareness in memory of her son.

"I have to go on without my baby. I'm embracing life now — I don't want to give suicide any more power."


Brandi Morin, Métis, born and raised in Alberta, possesses a passion for telling Indigenous stories. Based outside Edmonton, Morin has lent her talents to several news organizations, including Indian Country Today Media Network and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network National News.