More than a year after Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency following a spike in suicide attempts, members of the small indigenous community in northern Ontario say there’s still a desperate lack of mental health resources.
Jackie Hookimaw is haunted by the last words of her 13-year-old grandniece, Sheridan Hookimaw. The teen’s suicide became symbolic of the tragic crisis that swept through the Cree community of about 2,000 people in April 2016.
“She said ‘I am being bullied. I’m tired. I’m tired of being sick’ and she said ‘I’m sorry I love you please don’t blame yourselves,’” Jackie told Global News, referring to a final message from Sheridan.
Jackie remembers her grandniece as a funny and sensitive teenager who loved helping out with little children in the community. Sheridan suffered from a number of serious medical conditions including, asthma, thyroid problems, diabetes and obesity. The 13 year old was also bullied at school.
WATCH: Lots of blame, little action 1 year after Attawapiskat suicide crisis
“I think it was just too much for a little girl who didn’t have enough support by the system where she was supposed to be taken care of,” Hookimaw said, adding that no drugs or alcohol were detected in her grandniece’s body. “Lack of health care, lack of counselling services at the school to properly monitor children — to assess them.”
After Sheridan’s death in October 2015, Hookimaw said the community of Attawapiskat, which has been plagued by poor water quality and squalid housing conditions, began seeing instances of young people overdosing on medications like Tylenol.
“It just seemed, the trauma was so much,” she said. “’We started seeing a lot of incidences where youth were attempting to take their lives.”
On April 9, 2016, local First Nations leaders declared a state of emergency after nearly a dozen suicide attempts in a single Saturday night, including one involving an 11 year old, and more than 100 in the previous seven months.
Now, one year after the crisis that drew international headlines and saw federal politicians fly into the community, Attawapiskat residents still don’t have access to permanent mental health workers due to housing issues.
Attawapiskat CEO Wayne Turner said Health Canada has provided the funding for housing the workers, but the First Nation is still in the process of hiring people for the positions.
“Attawapiskat First Nation is thankful for the support and concern given since our community made an emergency declaration in April 2016 after being overwhelmed by attempted suicides,” Turner said in a statement. “The community wishes to commemorate the one year mark quietly and asks that everyone please respect this request.”
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Currently, two federally funded mental health support workers are serving the community but haven’t been able to live there full time due to a lack of housing.
Former Attawapiskat chief Bruce Shisheesh said that despite promises from both the Ontario and federal governments, little has changed in the community and there is still a need for more mental health resources.
“My people are still suffering from poor conditions, poor housing, poor water supply, poor employment,” Shisheesh told Global News. “I was told by the prime minister and the leaders, the ministers, there would be something — two mental health workers — still today there is no mental health workers.”
Shisheesh, who led the community through the crisis last year, spent many late nights in hospital with family members of young people who have attempted to take their own lives.
“There were times when I would cry by myself when no one was around. I felt helpless, hopeless,” Shisheesh said, adding he was homeless at the time the emergency was declared. “I was tired all the time. But I did my best to not show my weaknesses to people, because as a leader you want to be strong for your people.”
Shisheesh, who was replaced by Ignace Gull in an August 2016 leadership vote, said his community is dealing with the effects of colonialism and would like to see a more “holistic” or “grassroots” approach in dealing with the mental health crisis.
“I would urge the federal government to do more. Listen to our young people, even our children, give them what they need because they are our future,” he said. “They are Canada’s future generation.”
WATCH: Jackie Hookimaw says suicide is a ‘normal way of how people die’ in Attawapiskat
As part of its response to the crisis, the federal government pledged to build a new youth centre at the request of young people in Attawapiskat, but construction has yet to start and there is no timetable for its completion.
Bennett said she was also pleased with the new funding for 39 new housing units in Attawapiskat and the creation of the First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Helpline, which provides crisis counselling by phone for First Nations and Inuit, 24 hours a day, and is available in English and French and Cree, Ojibway, and Inuktitut, upon request.
“Youth coming together to plan their centre and all of that really speaks to some hope and for them to be able to see themselves in the future,” Bennett said.
Global News attempted to reach Attawapiskat Chief Ignace Gull for an interview but he was unavailable.
NDP MP Charlie Angus, who represents Timmins-James Bay, said the issue of suicide affects First Nations communities across Canada including La Loche in Saskatchewan and Wapekeka in Ontario, where two 12-year-old girls died by suicide earlier this year.
“We are losing young people almost every day,” Angus said. “The big numbers from Attawapiskat have diminished but I’m still dealing on a weekly basis with families who have lost a young person and there’s no programs on the ground to help them.”
He said that while some support has been brought in to help Attawapiskat, there just aren’t enough mental health resources across northern Canada.
“What we should have learned out of Attawapiskat is that you have a proactive plan to make sure these things don’t happen,” Angus said.
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, said that Canada’s approach to these tragedies is too often “reactive” and should be proactive.
“We say ‘no’ — children should not have to die to get a reaction from the federal government.”
“The Canadian government’s obligation is to ensure equity for all kids so that they don’t end up in these very tragic situations.”
WATCH: 2016 mental health crisis in Attawapiskat
In their last budget, the Liberals pledged $828.2 million spread out over five years for First Nations and Inuit health, including $118.2 million for mental health programs and $15 million to combat addiction. The 2016 budget saw $634.8 million allocated to First Nations child and family services.
However, Blackstock gave the federal government a “D” when it came to funding for First Nations children adding children on reserves get less than other Canadian kids.
“When I explain to [politicians] that First Nations kids get less than everybody else because of their race they are appalled by it,” she said. “We are a country that is going to spend a half billion dollars on Canada’s birthday and I am one taxpayer who would rather see that go to mental health services and safe schools for kids.”
WATCH: We need more grassroots initiatives to tackle Attawapiskat’s suicide crisis: Jackie Hookimaw
Inquest in Sheridan’s death?
Meanwhile, the family of Sheridan Hookimaw is wants an inquest into her death. Inquests are public hearings investigating the circumstances of a person’s death. They aim to provide the public with new information surrounding the cause of death and recommendations on how to address those issues in the future.
“Suicide is a symptom of oppression that we live through and it has many reasons like with Sheridan it was bullying,” said Hookimaw. “Where the family is hurting with this process is when the coroner came to meet with us in the hospital and right away we asked for an inquest but it just seemed he shot it down right away.”
Dr. Michael Wilson, regional supervising coroner in Thunder Bay, said he travelled to Attawapiskat in March 2016 after the teenager’s death.
“Clearly this was a tragic death and it was thoroughly investigated by our office. And our findings and conclusions were shared with the family,” Wilson said, adding he hasn’t received a formal statement to date. “I did not feel that a public airing of events was warranted. But I would seriously consider a family request for an inquest.”
Angus supported calls for an inquest and called Sheridan’s case heartbreaking.
“The family needs answers,” he said. “We have to start making these children’s lives mean something. When children like this are allowed to die there does need to be an inquest, there does need to be answers and there does need to be officials held accountable.”
— With files from Mike Le Couteur