Several youth in Attawapiskat First Nation were brought into the local hospital on Monday and might have been members of a suicide pact, according to a deputy grand chief who represents the reserve, which declared a state of emergency after 11 suicide attempts in a single day over the weekend.
Reached late Monday evening, Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum told The Globe and Mail that police advised her they are investigating a potential suicide pact among youth in the remote Ontario community. Ms. Achneepineskum said her understanding is that while the 11 attempts on Saturday are believed to be separate incidents, the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service were alerted to a group of youth that may have been planning to take their own lives Monday evening.
“I have no idea as to the extent of the conversations. I just know that the children were overheard talking about conspiring to commit suicide tonight,” Ms. Achneepineskum said. “If that’s not a suicide pact, I don’t know what is.”
The police service could not be reached for comment Monday evening, but the director of the regional health authority that serves Attawapiskat told The Globe that police officers brought in at least seven youth for treatment and assessment on Monday. Police in Ontario have the authority, under the Mental Health Act, to apprehend individuals that they have reasonable grounds to believe might harm themselves. Crystal Culp, of the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority, which serves Attawapiskat, said all of the youth saw a mental-health counsellor and some were treated medically. As of Monday evening, at least two were still being treated because they had “medical issues that need to be addressed,” she said.
Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh declared a state of emergency Saturday evening, triggering an influx of health resources onto a reserve that, like so many other northern communities, grapples with sparse and unpredictable health and social services. “Community front-line resources are exhausted and no additional outside resources are available,” said the hand-written declaration, signed by Mr. Shisheesh at 9:24 p.m. on Saturday.
The federal and provincial governments have deployed health teams to the remote Ontario community – the latest in a string of crises in isolated indigenous communities across Canada this year. The declaration in Attawapiskat came on the heels of the fatal La Loche school shooting in Saskatchewan, a spate of suicides that left six people dead in Manitoba’s Pimicikamak community, and a deadly house fire that killed nine family members on Ontario’s Pikangikum First Nation, which has long battled a suicide epidemic of its own.
“This is one of the most serious and pressing tragedies that our nation is facing,” federal Health Minister Jane Philpott told the House of Commons on Monday. “I am devastated by the situation that is taking place in Attawapiskat.” She announced that five new mental-health workers have been sent to Attawapiskat, a community of about 2,000 that is accessible only by air and a 300-kilometre winter road that connects it to Moosonee, which provides access to the south via rail link.
The Ontario government is also sending an emergency medical assistance team that includes nurses, nurse practitioners and social workers, and the Weeneebayko hospital in Moose Factory is sending a crisis team focused on mental health. “We will do everything we can to put the supports in place,” Premier Kathleen Wynne told the Ontario legislature Monday.
The day before Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with northern Ontario indigenous leaders in Thunder Bay to discuss a range of issues affecting First Nation communities in the province, including poor water quality, inadequate housing and the alarming rate at which aboriginals are taking their own life.
Suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading cause of death of First Nations people under the age of 45, and First Nations youth are five to six times more likely to die by suicide than their non-indigenous counterparts. On Twitter on Sunday evening, Mr. Trudeau called the news out of Attawapiskat “heartbreaking.”
In an interview with The Globe on Monday, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said it is time for all levels of government to make improvements to housing, education and skills training that will inspire hope among young people.
“It’s terrible that chiefs have to go to that point of declaring a state of emergency,” said Mr. Bellegarde, expressing some optimism that the national attention will lead to better services, particularly for youth. “Why do they turn to suicide? They have to be filled with hope and inspiration … [They have to] see that their life is worthwhile and meaningful.”
Attawapiskat has declared a state of emergency several times over the past decade as a result of poor water quality, sewage contamination and a housing shortage. The latter declaration, in October of 2011, set off lingering tensions between Attawapiskat and Ottawa, with the then-ruling Conservatives questioning why the housing crisis existed given the millions provided to the community over the years.
A year later, then-chief Theresa Spence launched a high-profile hunger strike near Parliament Hill in the midst of the Idle No More indigenous rights movement. A government-commissioned audit released in 2013 raised questions of financial accountability under her leadership.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, whose organization represents 49 northern Ontario communities, said he has been in constant communication with Mr. Shisheesh about the latest cluster of suicide attempts. He said his understanding is that there were 11 attempts on Saturday alone, including one by an 11-year-old, and roughly 30 attempts in March. “It’s been males, females, youth, adults, different families in the community,” he said.
Attawapiskat resident Jackie Hookimaw said the suicide crisis started last fall, when a number of people tried to take their own lives. Ms. Hookimaw, whose 13-year-old great niece took her own life in October, said the community simply does not have the resources to cope with the problem.
Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon, who heads the Mushkegowuk Council that includes Attawapiskat, told The Globe there is usually one provincial mental-health worker that serves the community – a staffing complement he described as “disturbing.” The health authority website says its James Bay Community Health Program, which is based in Moosonee, is open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is one federally funded psychiatrist that holds clinics once a month in communities served by the authority, which also offers “telemedicine” through video-conferencing.
Last year, the federal Auditor-General criticized Health Canada for providing inadequate support for remote First Nations communities in Manitoba and Ontario, especially in relation to nursing stations. Ms. Philpott told the House during Question Period that her department has been working to address those concerns. She and Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett later told reporters that the $8.4-billion in new spending for indigenous people announced in the March budget will help address some of the long-standing issues faced by First Nation communities.
KATHRYN BLAZE BAUM AND BILL CURRY
TORONTO and OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Apr. 11, 2016 10:11PM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Apr. 12, 2016 1:10AM EDT