This weekend, the Attawapiskat First Nation, a small community in Canada’s remote James Bay, declared a state of emergency after the community of 2,000 people saw 11 suicide attempts. Attawapiskat First Nation has seen a growing mental health crisis since September, when five teenage girls tried to overdose. Since then, there have been 101 suicide attempts in the Ontario community. One person has died.
Chief Bruce Shisheesh told the CBC that he and the council met Saturday night and voted to declare a state of emergency. That decision requires both the local health authority and Health Canada, the department charged with overseeing the country’s health system, to provide the Attawapiskat First Nation with additional resources, including mental health counselors. Shisheesh said that the community currently has only four counselors, none of whom have received specialized training in mental health. The CBC reports:
The council has hired security to keep an eye on patients currently in hospital. The Mushkegowuk Council, which represents eight northern Ontario First Nations, is also trying to help.
“These four workers, crisis workers, are burned out. They can’t continue working daily because of the amount of suicides [that] have happened. They’re backlogged,” said the council’s Deputy Grand Chief Rebecca Friday.
“There are no services at the moment, no counsellors in the community.”
A few support workers have been brought in by the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, an association of northern Ontario First Nations, she said, but that’s not enough to stem the number of attempted suicides.
The Guardian reports that indigenous people, roughly 4 percent of Canada’s population, are more likely to live in poverty than other Canadians. A 2010 report found that First Nation children in northern Ontario were 50 times more likely to attempt suicide. Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation told the newspaper that the poverty and lack of mental health care are “shocking.” Fiddler said that the living conditions in Attawapiskat are “third world conditions, with dilapidated housing, and lack access to quality healthcare and education.” Though De Beers operates its Victor Diamond Mine, one of the wealthiest in the world, on Attawapiskat tribal lands, the community has seen little of the revenue. The Toronto Star reports that, in 2014, the Cree community saw only $1 million of the sizable revenue earned by the open pit mine.
On Twitter, Justin Trudeau called the news “heartbreaking,” and promised to “continue to to work to improve living conditions for all Indigenous peoples.”
On Monday, the Assembly of First Nations, a national advocacy group representing First Nation citizens, called on the government to address the high suicide rates in First Nation communities. “The situation in Attawapiskat is sadly felt by far too many First Nations across the country,” the Assembly of First Nations said in a statement. “We need a First Nations directed national strategy to address First Nations suicide rates and ensure our people are safe and thriving.”
View of Attawapiskat lands via Getty.