The chief and council for the Attawapiskat First Nation declared a state of an emergency Sunday as an epidemic of suicide attempts continues to grip the northern Ontario First Nation community, including 11 attempts in one night and approximately 100 since August.
A 10-year-old child was among the 11 people who tried to kill themselves Saturday.
Chief Bruce Shisheesh said he believes the lack of housing and poor living conditions are among the issues the residents of the community are faced with.
“There’s a lot of issues like housing crisis, overcrowded. There could be 15 people living in one house. There could be 20 people living in one house,” Shisheesh told Global News.
“I’m homeless, leading my own community,” Shisheesh said. “I sleep on a couch, how would you feel if you were leading Attawapiskat and you didn’t have a home or a place to sleep. I feel for my people, I know what they’re going through…it gets depressing.”
In the House of Commons on Monday afternoon, Minister of Health Jane Philpott called the suicide crisis “one of the most serious and pressing tragedies.”
“We now have five new mental health workers in the community and are responding with both immediate needs and long term needs for this community,” Philpott said during Question Period.
NDP James Bay MP Charlie Angus fired back saying: “as Parliamentarians our primary responsibility is to make sure the children in this country have hope, and we are failing them.”
“It shouldn’t take a state of an emergency to get mental health workers to fly into a region that had 700 plus suicide attempts,” Angus said. ” What’s it going to take to end this cycle of crisis and death among young people.”
The minister of health said the budget earmarked $8.4 billion in funding for Indigenous communities.
“When we invest in education so that these young people will have a standard of education that every Canadian child should have, it will renew hope.”
The Attawapiskat First Nation on James Bay is home to about 2,000 people. The community has been plagued by suicides and attempts of suicides for years. More recently, Shisheesh said in March alone there were 28 suicide attempts. Since the start of April, there have been 15 attempts.
“Indian residential school drama, it impacts on our young people. It impacts on our children and we are trying to be positive here,” Shisheesh explained. “But at the same time, we are emotionally drained. Our staff is breaking down emotionally, I’m talk about counsellors.
“Unable to think, unable to sleep, eating habits are not normal, high stress level. When I look at staff we need relief for our workers,” Shisheesh said.
A disaster response team has been sent to the community to help provide crisis relief. Philpott told Global News that two mental health counsellors were also being sent along with that team.
“We are aware of the recent declaration of a state of emergency in Attawapiskat and express our deepest concern to everyone in the community,” Philpott wrote.
“Health Canada has dispatched two mental health counselors to the community of Attawapiskat as part of the NAN crisis response unit.”
The Mushkegowuk Council said the northern communities don’t have the resources to deal with a crisis at this capacity.
“When you are dealing with crisis regarding a 10-year-old, we don’t have capacity at this level with resources.” Deputy Grand Chief Rebecca Friday said. “Meaning counselling for this individual, counselling for these middle aged people…that’s the capacity we are missing right here in Attawapiskat.”
“We’ve been dealing with this locally with four crisis workers, one worker, and two support workers at this level. There is no professional mental health providers” Friday said.
Drug abuse is another factor in the current epidemic of suicide attempts that is hurting the community.
“We have people that are using drugs like speed, percs, that’s a concern,” Shisheesh said. “We are concerned as leaders…about the drug issue, it’s destroying homes, it’s ruining our young people and it’s running families.”
Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde echoed the call for immediate response and support for what he called a “national tragedy.
“The situation in Attawapiskat is sadly felt by far too many First Nations across the country,” Bellegarde 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.
“We need a sustained commitment to address long-standing issues that lead to hopelessness among our peoples, particularly the youth,” Bellegarde said.
Bellegarde said he has been in contact with both provincial and federal health ministers to request immediate resources to help deal with the crisis for both on the short and long term.
“Both Ministers reassured me that they are moving swiftly to work with the community in the wake of this weekend’s terrible events.”
— Jennifer Tryon contributed to this report.