After three suicides in his community last fall, Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation Chief Ron Mitsuing travelled more than 550 km from his home in northern Saskatchewan to the province’s southern capital of Regina, looking for help.
At the legislature, he asked provincial leaders for support to prevent others from dying from suicide, and pleaded for an immediate commitment to a long-term strategy and the money to fund it.
As Mitsuing was leaving the building on Nov. 27, 2019, he told the reporters who met him that he was disappointed by the government’s response, adding, “if they keep waiting, it’s going to happen again.”
It has happened again.
In the past year, seven people living on the reserve have died by suicide, Mitsuing told Global News over Zoom this week.
“We’re still at the phase where we’re on alert,” he said, adding the pandemic has not made things any easier.
The band’s four therapists and three youth mentors are exhausted, he said.
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While the community is grateful for the extra two therapists the province provides on weekends, without more resources, Makwa Sahgaiehcan isn’t going to be able to work toward prevention.
Mitsuing, who lost three friends to suicide in recent months, said his community is still focusing on those who are at-risk.
He wants more engagement from federal, and especially provincial, politicians — who have been talking about priorities on the campaign trail since the writ dropped late last month.
“It’s got to be one of the top ones,” Mitsuing said.
“People that would make decisions out in Ottawa or Regina, they need to come and see first-hand what’s happening.”
The Saskatchewan Coroners Service’s records show at least 2,338 people died by suicide in the province between 2005 and 2019, with at least 695 of them being Indigenous.
Since the Saskatchewan Party’s win in the 2016 provincial election, NDP MLA Doyle Vermette, a Metis politician representing the Cumberland riding, has twice introduced legislation around suicide prevention.
The government, which has twice voted down his bills, introduced its Pillars for Life: The Saskatchewan Suicide Prevention Plan this spring, along with $1.2 million to support it.
While Pillars for Life recognizes suicide to be the leading cause of death among people between the ages of 10 and 49 in northern Saskatchewan, a region primarily made of Indigenous communities, First Nations leaders have been critical of the lack of consultation.
“It’s something that many of our First Nations right across this province and right across the country having been advocating and stressing for many, many years,” Bobby Cameron, chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), told Global News.
“You’re going to find the best solutions and things that are going to work for our youth and all of our membership right across the province directly at the First Nations.”
Basic funding for First Nations falls under federal jurisdiction, but that doesn’t mean provincial governments, like Saskatchewan, shouldn’t be involved, said Chief Michael Starr, of the Star Blanket Cree Nation.
“We need more for our local system…our provincial system,” he said.
“Working together I think is the key, but unfortunately, that doesn’t happen sometimes.”
Star Blanket is also grappling with suicides.
Even with a new health centre, since the coronavirus arrived in the province, the chief said two people living on the reserve have taken their own lives.
The way forward is through meaningful, long-term collaboration, which requires relationship-building, he said.
Starr pointed out his nation and many other nations have members living off-reserve in Saskatchewan towns and cities.
“How do we work together? How do we support one another?” he said.
Following the situation on Makwa Sahgaiehcan last fall, the federal government pledged $2.5 million through the FSIN to fund community-driven suicide prevention strategies.
With hopes of eventually training up community members in professional areas — from psychiatry to sports management — chiefs like Mitsuing and Starr note there is a major role for the province to play.
“If we can find a program that can work with our own people, train our own people, that would certainly help,” Starr said.
For now, his community, like others, is forced to navigate the additional stress of the pandemic. There has been an increase in alcohol and drug abuse, he said, and issues that go along with it.
Mitsuing said Makwa Sahgaiehcan is in the same boat.
“Around here, everything affects everything,” he said.
“We’re still in that depending on the government and that’s what we need to get out of… We need to make sure they consult us so we can start preparing for any type of work they have and get us involved.”