Attawapiskat First Nation declares state of emergency after suicide attempts
Published Sunday, April 10, 2016 5:28PM EDT
Last Updated Sunday, April 10, 2016 8:33PM EDT
The remote northern Ontario First Nation of Attawapiskat has declared a state of emergency after 11 people attempted to take their own lives on Saturday.
A document signed by Chief Bruce Shisheesh and eight councillors says the small community of about 2,000 on James Bay also saw 28 suicide attempts in March.
"Community frontline resources are exhausted, and no additional outside resources are available," says the document that was issued on Saturday.
Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told CTV News that the 11 suicide attempts happened Saturday.
In total, more than 100 people in Attawapiskat have attempted suicide since September of last year and one person has died.
The state of emergency has prompted the dispatch of a Nishnawabe Aski Nation crisis response unit to the community.
A representative for Health Canada told The Canadian Press that two mental health counsellors were also sent to Attawapiskat.
"We recognize that there are serious and long-standing issues of mental health and addiction in some communities," wrote Health Canada spokesman Sean Upton.
He added that the department gives the First Nation funding for community services, including $340,860 for mental health and wellness programs and $9,750 for the National Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy.
But Charlie Angus, the local MP and NDP critic for indigenous affairs, told The Canadian Press that role of grief counsellor is often taken on by untrained community members who are trying to cope with their own issues.
"It's the local cops, it's the local teachers, it's parents," Angus said.
If the emergency was declared in any other community, “it would have an immediate response," he said. "I've lost count of the states of emergency in the James Bay region since I was elected."
Earlier on Sunday, Angus called the situation in Attawapiskat a "nightmare."
"I just talked to one of the young youth leaders, there were attempts last night. I don't know what is going on," Angus said in an appearance on CTV's News Channel.
Angus said the community lives in "third-world conditions" and children are "giving up hope."
"This is a national catastrophe … this is a warzone of despair," he said.
Angus said that this is not the first state of emergency issued in the area because of suicide attempts.
"It is a wake-up call for Canada. We need to take some action here," he said.
Jackie Hookimaw, a resident of the First Nation, told The Canadian Press that her 13-year-old great-niece Sheridan died by suicide in October.
Hookimaw said Sheridan was dealing with multiple health conditions and was bullied at school.
The Attawapiskat resident said she was also recently at the community's hospital where she saw a number teenage girls who had intentionally overdosed on drugs.
She said the latest string of youth suicide attempts began with Sheridan's death.
Part of the problem, Hookimaw said, is that the community does not have enough resources, and when Sheridan's peers were grieving there weren't adequate support systems in place.
"There's different layers of grief," Hookimaw said. "There's normal grief, when somebody dies from illness or old age. And there's complicated grief, where there's severe trauma, like when somebody commits suicide."
In response to the suicide attempts, Hookimaw said youth from Attawapiskat and other nearby communities organized a walk last week to shed some light on the issue.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered his sympathy to the community in a tweet on Sunday night.
The news from Attawapiskat is heartbreaking. We'll continue to work to improve living conditions for all Indigenous peoples.— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) April 10, 2016
Attawapiskat came to national attention in 2011 during a housing crisis that prompted its third state of emergency in three years.
Its former chief, Theresa Spence, also rose to prominence after going on a hunger strike for six weeks in an act of protest as part of the Idle No More movement.
With files from The Canadian Press