What can Canada do to relieve a First Nations community in crisis?

A Canadian First Nations community in northern Ontario declared a state of emergency this weekend after several people there attempted suicide.

Frank Gunn/Pool/Reuters
A tattered Canadian flag flies over a teepee in Attawapiskat, Ontario. The Canadian aboriginal community of 2,000 people declared a state of emergency on Saturday after 11 of its members tried taking their own lives over the weekend.

A First Nations community in the rural province of Ontario declared a state of emergency this weekend after several of its members attempted to commit suicide in recent days.

The Attawapiskat First Nation, located on the Attawapiskat River near James Bay, is home to approximately 2,000 native residents. A Canadian health ministry spokeswoman said that there were 11 suicide attempts between Friday and Saturday.

"We need help in Attawapiskat," community leader Chief Bruce Shisheesh told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Mr. Shisheesh and local councilors declared the state of emergency Saturday night.

CBC reported that there were 28 suicide attempts in March alone and more than 100 since September, when a 13-year-old girl committed suicide. Five girls purposely overdosed on drugs that same month, and the crisis has continued since then.

It is a somber moment for Canada's indigenous communities who have been working to draw more attention to their struggles with poverty and unemployment. In the run-up to the nation's election in the fall, an unprecedented turn-out-the-vote drive sought to engage more native peoples with the political process and more indigenous members are serving in Parliament than ever before. The tragedy of the weekend's event underscores the urgency to find constructive solutions.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau commented on the emergency on Twitter, calling the news "heartbreaking" and pledging support for the improvement of indigenous living conditions.

Reuters reported that the northern Ontario-based Nishnawbe Aski Nation would provide Attawapiskat with a crisis response unit, including two mental-health counselors from Health Canada. In addition to sending counselors, the public health department announced it would work with Attawapiskat and the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority in responding to the crisis.

Charlie Angus, the Member of Parliament for the Timmins-James Bay district containing Attawapiskat, said the First Nation community and others like it were "Basically established almost as internal displacement camps," and urged Canada to make "long-term structural commitments to support the young people in all these communities."

"We have zero dollars in this new budget for health services for indigenous communities. That has to change," Mr. Angus said in a telephone interview. "We need to be able to say that the days of systematically denying service to indigenous children because they're on reserves, that that's going to end once and for all."

Attawapiskat struggles with issues ranging from drug abuse to a 70 percent unemployment rate. In addition to these challenges, the community is cut off from land travel for months at a time. Yet, says Shisheesh, the First Nation community still lacks adequate health-care systems to deal with such societal problems as the recent wave of suicide attempts.

"We need a mental health worker, we need a youth worker," Shisheesh said. "We need training dollars to train up our workers."

The regional Mushkegowuk Council, made up of representatives from several Ontario First Nations, says its limited health-care staff can't keep up with the work needed 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," the Mushkegowuk Deputy Grand Chief Rebecca told CBC. "There are no services at the moment, no counselors in the community."

The effects that suicide can have on smaller, isolated communities such as Attawapiskat may be augmented by a "contagion effect," say some health-care workers. The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2013 that adolescents exposed to a classmate's suicide are two to five times more likely to think about or attempt the same, according to a Canadian Medical Association Journal study. That pattern can lead to "cluster" suicides among young people.

"The lack of support teams creates a spiral effect, and this isn't the first cycle of death and suicide attempts that we've seen, we've had them in community after community," Angus said.

Among all of Canada’s aboriginal youth, suicide rates are five to six times higher than those in non-First Nations populations, per Health Canada. The agency also reports that suicide and injuries stemming from self-harm are the leading cause of death for native people up to 44 years of age.

"The situation in Attawapiskat is sadly felt by far too many First Nations across the country," said Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde in a release by the aboriginal organization.

"We need a First Nations directed national strategy to address First Nations suicide rates and ensure our people are safe and thriving," Mr. Bellegarde said.

Angus says he hopes that solutions to mental-health emergencies can be permanently integrated more closely with First Nations tradition, instead of through outside groups that "come in with a quick fix Band-Aid."

"Communities are very very much tied to their traditional culture and their land," he said. "The real solutions are going to come from empowering resource teams within their traditional communities to start working with the professionals."

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