The Current

'Dying from hopelessness': Attawapiskat desperate to stop suicide pandemic

Attawapiskat is a community in crisis. Aboriginal youth in northern Ontario take their own lives at a rate 50 times the national average. Those trying to save them are begging for help, calling for national action to deal with the mental health emergency.
According to Dr. Laurence Kirmayer, co-director of the Network for Aboriginal Mental Health Research, it is not uncommon for Aboriginal communities to have clusters of suicides since people in these communities are already at a higher risk of suicide. (Frank Gunn/Pool/Reuters)

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Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario declared a state of emergency Saturday in response to reports of 11 suicide attempts in one day by residents of all ages, including a 10-year-old child.

Since September, there have been reports of more than 100 suicide attempts and at least one death.

"Last night we had about 11 suicide attempts, and for the month of April itself, altogether, it's 15... That's a lot.- Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh, on Sunday April 10, 2016

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called the situation "heartbreaking". And both federal and provincial governments have flown an emergency medical assistance team into the community, including mental health workers. But local leaders say much more needs to be done to address the underlying conditions driving so many people — especially young people — to despair.

A tattered Canadian flag flies over a building in Attawapiskat, Ont. The remote northern Ontario First Nation has declared a state of emergency after numerous suicide attempts. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Charlie Angus, the NDP MP for TImmins-James Bay which includes the northern Ontario First Nation, knows all to well the suffering of Attawapiskat residents. He has adamantly pushed for more resources and better support for the community. As the NDP indigenous affairs critic, he has called on the federal government to adopt a national action plan to deal with what he calls a suicide "pandemic" in First Nations communities. 

Attawapiskat is not alone among First Nation communities when it comes to grappling with an onslaught of suicide attempts. It's a phenomenon that Dr. Laurence Kirmayer says is all too common  for aboriginal communities.

Guests in this segment:

  • Jonathan Solomon, Grand Chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, of which Attawapiskat is a member nation.     
  • Charlie Angus, NDP MP for Timmins-James Bay in northern Ontario, an area which includes the Attawapiskat First Nation. He's also the author of Children of the Broken Treaty: Canada's Lost Promise and One Girl's Dream.
  • Dr. Laurence Kirmayer, co-director of the Network for Aboriginal Mental Health Research, and director of the division of social and transcultural psychiatry at McGill University. 

This segment was produced by The Current's Idella Sturino, Sujata Berry and Paula Last.

Canadian rockers The Tragically Hip wrote Goodnight Attawapiskat after visiting the area for a concert.