‘We’re hurting’: Saskatchewan First Nation calls for long-term solution to youth suicide crisis

AFN Youth Council co-chair emotionally speaks about Indigenous youth suicides in push for action
WATCH: AFN Youth Council co-chair emotionally speaks about Indigenous youth suicides in push for action

Indigenous leaders on Tuesday called for solutions to the youth suicide crises that have plagued several First Nations communities, weeks after a “cluster” of deaths in northern Saskatchewan.

The Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation declared a state of emergency in November following three youth suicides in as many weeks.

The most recent case involved a 10-year-old girl.

READ MORE: Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation declares state of crisis after 3 recent suicides

In three years, the community of 1,000 has seen seven suicides.

Makwa Sahgaiehcan Chief Ronald Mitsuing told Global News Tuesday that the community wants long-term solutions — but needs help.

“We know all the problems here, we can try to fix them on our own, but we just don’t have the resources or the funding,” he said.

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“If we can get trained people to come and train our people, we’ll have a long-term sustainability. Our people will be trained on how to deal with these types of situations,” he added.

“Right now my community is in mourning and we’re hurting.”

Federal bureaucrats worry Canadians unaware of progress on Indigenous files
Federal bureaucrats worry Canadians unaware of progress on Indigenous files

Mitsuing used the example of one youth who came to see him just days before he died by suicide.

“Maybe I could have spotted something. I could have talked to him,” he said. “But I’m not trained in that kind of situation.”

He added that several teachers in the community have quit in wake of the suicides, and are suffering from “burnout.”

The Saskatchewan crisis was among several issues discussed at the Assembly of First Nations gathering on Tuesday.

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National Chief Perry Bellegarde said action must be taken to stop Indigenous youths from feeling so hopeless that they are resorting to self-harm.

“We know that too many of our young ones are taking their lives. And so we say to those young people that you’re special, you are gifted and you’re loved. Never forget that,” Bellegarde said.

“We do call on this government to finally work with [our] leadership and families and people to finally implement a youth-suicide-prevention strategy. That is needed — one that supports all of our young people.”

READ MORE: Makwa Sahgaiehcan chief ‘disappointed’ about lack of long-term suicide prevention plan

The AFN meeting grew emotional when Rosalie LaBillois, a member of the youth council, choked up while speaking about the crisis.

“We want to commit to making changes for our young people,” she said, as a number of chiefs surrounded her in support. “Because, as leaders, I don’t believe we’re just here to look pretty. I want to get stuff done. I want to tell you the hard, cold truth that’s happening in our communities.”

“Our communities, our homelands, are facing something that’s very dark,” she said.

Suicide crisis in other communities

Data shows that the crisis extends far beyond one community.

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In 2016, the First Nation of Attawapiskat received international media attention after it declared a state of emergency following nearly a dozen suicide attempts in one night, including one by an 11-year-old.

In the preceding months, were 100 other suicide attempts.

This August, God’s Lake First Nation declared a state of emergency after four young people died by suicide. There had been dozens of suicide attempts all summer in the northern Manitoba community of around 1,500 people.

Indigenous leader says he’s waiting for a national strategy around issue of suicides
Indigenous leader says he’s waiting for a national strategy around issue of suicides

A Statistics Canada report from this July found that suicide rates among First Nations people, Metis and Inuit are significantly higher than non-Indigenous populations.

From 2011 to 2016, the suicide rate among First Nations people was three times higher. The suicide rate for those living on reserves was two times higher than those living off reserves.

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READ MORE: First Nations suicide rate 3 times higher than for non-Indigenous people: StatsCan

For those who identify as Metis, the rate was two times rather than non-Indigenous populations. Among Inuit, the rate was about nine times higher than the rest of the Canadian population.

Suicide rates were highest for youth and young adults, StatCan added.

Federal response to the Saskatchewan crisis, so far

Indigenous Services Canada said in an email statement to Global News it is working with the First Nation to provide mental health and crisis support. It added that Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller has reached out to the community’s leaders.

“ISC is deeply saddened by this tragic loss of life and offers its sincere condolences to the families and communities,” wrote spokesperson Rola Tfaili.

The federal government is working with the Meadow Lake Tribal Council to provide support, Tfaili said.

FSIN releases suicide prevention plan
FSIN releases suicide prevention plan

New Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is set to speak at the AFN meeting Tuesday. Several other Liberal cabinet ministers will also address the assembly later this week, including Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, Justice Minister David Lametti and Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault.

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If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

Youth in crisis can contact Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 or the First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310.

— With files from The Canadian Press