As It Happens

'A complicated grief,' says aunt of Attawapiskat teen who took her own life

Attawapiskat has declared a state of emergency following a surge in suicides and attempted suicides in the First Nation community. Eleven people attempted suicide on Saturday alone.
A tattered Canadian flag flies over a building in Attawapiskat, Ont. in 2011. The remote northern Ontario First Nation has declared a state of emergency after numerous suicide attempts this week. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Eleven in one night.

That's how many people tried to take their own lives in the northern Ontario Attawapiskat First Nation this past Saturday.

She was very cheerful. We were so shocked. We never thought Sheridan would ever harm herself like this.- Jackie Hookimaw-Witt, 13-year-old Sheridan's aunt

Jackie Hookimaw-Witt, a resident of Attawapiskat, tells As it Happens guest host Laura Lynch what it was like in the community over the weekend.

"Attawapiskat is small. The airport is right nearby. You hear the commotion. It seems almost like [the air ambulance] is landing all the time. You get more tense because you hear the plane and you think, 'Oh my God, it's happening again.'"

Last October, Hookimaw-Witt's niece, Sheridan, killed herself. She was 13-years-old.

"She was very cheerful. We were so shocked. We never thought Sheridan would ever harm herself like this," says Hookimaw-Witt. "The last two days I saw her, she seemed awfully quiet. I thought maybe she was just feeling tired. Then I heard that she actually harmed herself. It was such a shock."

Since September, 101 people have attempted suicide in the northern Ontario community. Attawapiskat's population is around 1,800.

Attawapiskat is on the shore of James Bay. (Map data 2016@Google)

Over the weekend, the chief and council in Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency, saying they're overwhelmed by the suicide attempts.

"We live in such an impoverished environment," says Hookimaw-Witt. "At times, it just seems hopeless."