Manitoba chief loses cousin to suicide while in Ottawa to discuss crisis

A chief representing 30 Manitoba First Nations has lost her own cousin to suicide, a startling coincidence given she is in Ottawa this week to meet with senior government officials about the mental health crisis in northern and remote Indigenous communities.

Sheila North Wilson says she's 'numb' after learning her cousin took his own life as she met with ministers

Sheila North Wilson, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, speaks to the parliamentary Indigenous affairs committee on Thursday. (CBC News)

A chief representing 30 Manitoba First Nations lost her own cousin to suicide Monday, a startling coincidence given she is in Ottawa this week to meet with senior government officials about the mental health crisis in northern and remote Indigenous communities.

Sheila North Wilson, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), told the Indigenous Affairs committee Thursday that her cousin, Gabe Weenusk, took his own life at the same time she was meeting with Health Minister Jane Philpott and Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett about health care gaps.

"In the meeting, I was getting texts from my family, saying to pray, but I didn't know what to pray for. And then, at the end of the meeting, as I was leaving Parliament Hill, I talked to my dad, and my whole family was wailing, saying my beautiful cousin passed away," North Wilson said, fighting back tears.

Gabe Weenusk (Submitted)

The chief said Weenusk wasn't a "nobody." He completed training as a heavy duty equipment operator in Thompson, Man., and returned to his home at Oxford House First Nation, some 950 kilometres north of Winnipeg, to find work and settle down with his wife, and their three children. But a feeling of hopelessness caught up with him this week, she said.

"He cared for his family, he tried to do his best, but he couldn't," she said in an interview with CBC News. "My cousin wanted a good life as much as anybody else."

The chief said she also heard that another young girl, age 12, from the neighbouring community of God's River, took her life on Monday.

"Our young people feel the same way, they're desperate. We have so many," she said, adding housing is in such a sorry state, schools are crumbling, and health care is limited.

There's also a feeling that people are stuck in their communities because it is so expensive to fly in and out of the isolated reserves. At the same time the people are determined to stay on the traditional land they love.

"We're in a constant state of crisis and trauma, it's always on the surface humming over our people. Once in a while it hits us personally, and this time it has [for me]. I've been feeling sick since I heard, and I feel weak and I feel numb."

North Wilson said her first inclination was to go home after she heard the news of her cousin.

"After I heard, I wanted to turn around and just go to the airport. But I couldn't, my family said I have to stay and do this. I'm doing this because of Gabe."

"I don't want this trip to be in vain."

This isn't the first time North Wilson has lost a family member to suicide. Another cousin, Warren Chubb, took his own life when he was in his early 20s some years back, leaving behind a daughter.

Warren Chubb (Submitted)

"This is a real issue. This isn't an issue on paper, it's not an issue on statistics. This is happening to real and beautiful people, that are affecting our whole communities," she told members of the Indigenous Affairs committee, adding she has been to hundreds of funerals in her lifetime.

The parliamentary committee is in the midst of a study of the suicide crisis, and has spoken with some 80 witnesses about the conditions that have led to so many young First Nations kids taking their own lives.

'Just need the will'

"We need to take control of the First Nations, and our lives back. We don't need government policies and officials telling us what works, and what we need in our communities," North Wilson said. "We just need the will by government and officials to think differently."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged an additional $69 million over three years for First Nations mental wellness programs at the height of the Attawapiskat suicide crisis last summer.

That brings total federal spending to roughly $300 million a year, which is enough to fund 43 mental wellness teams to fan out across the country and minister to those in need, a number the Assembly of First Nations and others have said is woefully inadequate as there are more than 600 First Nations.

Another pool of money the government committed to providing health care to First Nations children, including mental health supports, has been slow to roll out because Health Canada itself admits the system that provides care is "broken."

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.