The Northern Ontario First Nation of Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency on April 9, the same day that 11 residents attempted suicide—one of them reportedly as young as 10.
Community officials said there have been more than 100 attempted suicides, one fatal, since September 2015. The spike comes amid growing despair experienced, mostly by youth, within the isolated First Nation Reserve on the shores of James Bay. Reports put one of the attempted suicides at just 10 years old.
Chief Bruce Shisheesh and six councillors declared the emergency in hopes of receiving medical and mental health assistance to combat the situation. On Monday April 11, the federal and provincial governments dispatched five health care and crisis workers to the community of about 2,000 people, which has been without a mental health worker for more than four months, according to Shisheesh.
“The cycle of poverty, poor health, suicides, violence will continue for another generation if determinants of health are not addressed immediately,” said Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day in a statement from the Chiefs of Ontario. “These are Third World living conditions, and these emergency declarations are the result. Not one average Canadian would let their children live in such conditions. This should be our tipping point as a people, as a nation and as a country. Canada must invest billions of dollars now on both clean water and adequate housing to begin with.”
The situation has gained international media attention as the opposition parties take aim at the Liberal government for not acting sooner.
“The news from Attawapiskat is heartbreaking,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Twitter, as he pledged anew to continue working with First Nations to improve living conditions for all Indigenous Peoples in Canada.
Charlie Angus, New Democratic Party (NDP) Member of Parliament (MP) for Timmins-James Bay, and official Critic for Indigenous and Northern Affairs, said the issues facing the First Nation community are systemic and must be addressed immediately. There have been more than 700 suicide attempts on First Nation reserves within his riding since 2009, Angus told reporters. He called the situation a pandemic and said there needs to be a long-term response to communities in despair.
This is not the first time Attawapiskat has been in the news. Over the past 10 years the community has declared a state of emergency five times regarding poor drinking water, inadequate housing issues, and flooding and sewage problems. Most visibly, in 2013 former Chief Theresa Spence held a 43-day hunger strike to bring attention to the community’s poor living standards.
“There needs to be a sustainable plan in addressing the need for mental health workers,” said Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon of the Mushkegowuk Council, of which Attawapiskat is a member, to CBC’s The Current on April 12. “It doesn’t make any sense to have one worker for 2,000 people.”
Indigenous leaders said there was still hope for healing.
“I am certain and optimistic that if we come together we can work on a resolution to this dire situation,” said Mushkegowuk Council, Grand Chief Solomon in a statement. “We will continue to work with all parties to develop cohesive solutions.”
Just days before the state of emergency was declared in Attawapiskat, a healing walk organized by youth in the community brought attention to the growing issues with suicide, as they remembered a 13-year-old girl who took her own life last October. Several teenagers in the community have been brought to the local hospital and put on watch after it was discovered that many of them had agreed to a suicide pact last week.
Sadly, these are not isolated incidents within Canadian First Nation communities. In recent months calls for action on the tragedies and struggles of aboriginal communities have come from all over the country, including La Loche, Saskatchewan and Northwest Angle #33, near the boarder of Manitoba and Minnesota, which declared a state of emergency after radioactive material was detected in the drinking water.
A similar trend is forming in aboriginal communities south of the border as well. In December the Yurok Tribal Council, near Klamath, California, declared a state of emergency after several tribal members committed suicide over the course of 18 months. That prompted nearly 200 members of a small isolated community near Weitchpec, on the upper Yurok Reservation, to issue a petition to the local government and a call to action on the matter.
“[Yurok youth] love their home and most want to stay here, but the lack of training opportunities, jobs, or even recreational facilities invites unhealthy behaviors and feelings of despair,” the petition read. “The people in this community need to feel that someone cares about what’s happening here. They urgently need your attention and your help.”
These cries of despair clearly mirror those felt by numerous First Nation communities in Canada, which raises more questions about the treatment of Indigenous Peoples throughout North America.
All these factors combined relate to a growing concern in Canada of the dire situations facing Indigenous Peoples. During his Speech to the Throne earlier this year, Trudeau vowed to renew government relationships with First Nations, pledging $8.4 billion in support of aboriginal communities. However, no specific funds were earmarked to battle mental health issues, a fact that was noted by indigenous leaders at the time.
During a session in the House of Commons on Monday, Health Minister Jane Philpott called the situation one of the most serious and pressing tragedies facing the nation.
“I am devastated by the situation that is taking place in Attawapiskat,” Philpott said. “We are responding to both the immediate needs and long-term needs of the community.”
On Tuesday, Angus issued a letter requesting an emergency sitting of the House of Commons to discuss the ongoing situation in Northern Ontario and the immediate crisis in Attawapiskat. On his Facebook page, Angus announced that Parliament would be holding an emergency session as he called for a collaborative solution to what he said was an ongoing “suicide crisis.”
“Parliament has agreed to my call for an emergency debate on the suicide crisis affecting indigenous communities,” Angus wrote. “We need to come together as Parliamentarians to discuss this issue and begin to find solutions. We need to move beyond the Band-Aid responses.”