Warning: Some of the details in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised.
When Manitoba’s Tataskweyak Cree Nation declared a state of emergency on Wednesday, after nine young people were lost to suicide in the last 14 months alone, many took to social media to share their devastation.
Some called it “heartbreaking.” Others said it was “disturbing.” But for many of those familiar with the ongoing mental health struggles among Indigenous communities, a different term was used to describe the tragic development: a “persistent problem.”
“This doesn’t come overnight. This didn’t just happen because of the pandemic,” said Sheila North, former grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO).
And while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said mental health in Indigenous communities is something the government takes “very, very seriously,” many of those who live in and around these communities say the government needs to be doing much more to address the issue.
“We need more help. I think that those lives that we’re losing, it’s actually a loss for all of us,” said Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
“We need to pull together and figure out how we can help Tataskweyak, but also other communities, because unfortunately, suicides are becoming prevalent in many of our other communities as well.”
History of high suicide rates
Tataskweyak Cree Nation is far from the first community to declare a state of emergency due to a mental health crisis gripping its people.
In April of 2016, Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario declared its own state of emergency as it grappled with an escalating youth suicide rate. The next year, Wapekeka First Nation, also in Ontario, followed suit, after the suicide of a 12-year-old girl sent the community reeling and 35 of its children experienced a mental health crisis.
In 2019, Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation in Saskatchewan declared a state of emergency after three people died by suicide in one month — including a 10-year-old child. In May of this year, Shamattawa First Nation in northern Manitoba was also plunged into an emergency after one community member died by suicide — and after a child later attempted to do the same.
The latest state of emergency in Tataskweyak Cree Nation has prompted renewed calls for action on the ongoing issue.
“We have to be very proactive. We have to think ahead and try to reach out to the young people because this is a very critical time … when these things happen in communities, and then there’s an epidemic of different things that happen,” said Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc. (MKO) Grand Chief Garrison Settee.
“We need to be proactive to prevent young people from attempting suicide. We need to be proactive and we need to reach out to them during this difficult time, because it can happen anywhere.”
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Settee’s comments are supported by the numbers.
First Nations people are three times more likely to die by suicide than the average Canadian, Statistics Canada found in a study released in 2019. This increased likelihood is often attributable to what Statistics Canada called “socioeconomic factors,” including household income, labour force status and geographic location.
The historical injustices perpetrated against Indigenous people in Canada, including residential schools, are also “believed to have shaped the mental health of Indigenous peoples,” according to a page dedicated to Indigenous mental health on the government’s website.
The factors at play here expose a deep-rooted issue, according to the experts, that can help us to understand what the government can do to further address the challenge.
“This is a persistent problem that stems from the effects of ignoring and keeping people impoverished,” said Sheila North.
“There’s a lot of intergenerational trauma that our young people, and people, are feeling from the effects of residential schools, colonization, the Sixties Scoop, and then this pandemic.”
North said that these traumas, coupled with the already stressful living conditions in many communities, can make people feel like “it’s almost impossible … to see your life improving.”
“And so people are giving up because they just went from bad to worse,” North said.
What are the feds doing?
In response to the latest state of emergency, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller’s office said he and his officials spoke directly with Tataskweyak Cree Nation Chief Doreen Spence.
“We recognize the roots of suicide and mental health issues in Indigenous communities as a result of a range of social inequities, and we are committed to assisting Tataskweyak Cree Nation and other communities to break this cycle in both the immediate and long-term,” read a statement his office sent to Global News.
The government said it’s supporting the community with “additional mental health therapists,” including “youth workers,” to help support those who are struggling. The Canadian Red Cross is also offering training for youth empowerment and “Psychological First Aid,” the statement explained.
“ISC is also supporting mental health services to the community through funding for program partners, including Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak for their mobile crisis teams,” Miller’s office said.
He added that the federal government is working “closely” with Chief Spence and the council to support Tataskweyak’s “longer-term solutions to respond to current community pressures and challenges.”
Broadly speaking, the government has taken some action to ensure there’s funding for mental health supports for Indigenous people.
The government funds the following programs and services in a bid to help address the mental health issues Indigenous communities grapple with:
- National Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy (NAYSPS) Program Framework
- National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program
- Mental health counselling benefits
- Indian Residential Schools Mental Health Support Program
- Jordan’s Principle
In addition to this, Justin Trudeau pledged on Thursday to continue working on long-term solutions to tackle the issue.
“We know that there are short-term supports needed,” he said.
“But long term, the supports that are needed are around language, around culture, around economic opportunities, around strong hopes for a future and a lack of racism and discrimination in our institutions around the country for Indigenous Peoples. These are the things that we need to commit ourselves to, as a country, on the hard work of reconciliation.”
What more needs to be done?
While North described the steps the government has taken so far as “a good start,” she said there’s much more that needs to be done.
“They need to keep building on that and work with Indigenous advocates and experts that know the community and know what to do,” North explained.
As things stand now, North said organizations like MKO — the advocacy body that provides a collective voice for its signatory First Nation communities in Manitoba — do not have the funding to be able to fix the problems that spark these mental health emergencies.
“I do understand the limitations, but I think there is a lot of will government will that could be making sure that adequate resources are being addressed for this critical issue,” North said.
“We knew it was coming, so they have to step up to do more as well.”
Spence said there were existing issues in Tataskweyak Cree Nation that impacted morale long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit — but that the pandemic made things worse. Without the supports in place to handle that dip in community mental health, community members were left feeling lost.
“This pandemic that we’ve been living through, this COVID, has impacted these lives and this is ongoing too. People are depressed right now, and they feel like they have nowhere or to turn to for supports out there,” Spence said.
“In all our First Nations, we don’t have adequate care — health-care supports — and we need that here.”
On top of the lack of supports, there’s also a lack of infrastructure that could help keep children’s minds occupied or put smiles on their faces, Spence said.
“(There’s a) lack of recreational activities for our children, because we’re lacking building infrastructure, right. Our band hall, during this whole school year, we had to utilize it as a classroom space for early grades, because our school was shut down because of the roof collapsing,” Spence explained.
When the lack of infrastructure, recreational activities, and health care combined with the trauma from injustices like residential schools becomes too much for members of the community, there’s another hurdle that can prevent residents from seeking help — even if the supports are there.
“There’s also a stigma,” said Tataskweyak Cree Nation’s Robert Garson.
“People are reluctant to come out and talk about suicidal thoughts. They do have them.”
On top of that, community resources can also get tied up in battling addictions, Garson said.
“We’re battling addictions, severe addictions of different kids … and, you know, family breakdowns because of that,” he explained.
The addictions issue can fuel the mental health crisis, Spence added.
“Some of these situations where people are self-harming or, you know, having these attempts, some of them are under the influence,” she said.
“If we didn’t have alcohol here in the community, I honestly feel that we would still have these young lives here.”
While it’s a complex issue with many elements, Spence was clear that there’s one overarching theme: that communities need resources — and they aren’t getting enough of it, including from a federal level.
“We don’t want to lose anyone, any more of these young lives … It’s heartbreaking,” she said.
“What happened could have been prevented, these young lives, if we had better access to mental health supports in the community and even recreational activities.”
‘You are valued’
Canadians need to keep the pressure on the government to ensure they keep their promises to address the crisis in these communities, North said.
“I think average Canadians are catching on and they understand and they need to be part of the discussion on holding the government to account — to make sure that they’re living up to the promises that were made a long time ago, and provide the basic human rights that Indigenous people deserve in every First Nation,” she said.
But in the meantime, North had a message for any young Indigenous people who might be struggling with their self-worth.
“I’ve had to tell people to in my own life to to to hang on, to give it one more day, to breathe another breath,” North said.
“You are worth it. You are valued. You come from a long line of beautiful, strong, resilient people. And you deserve a good life. You deserve respect. It’s not your fault. It never was.”
–With files from Global News’ Joe Scarpelli and David Akin
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts, Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868, and the Trans Lifeline 1-877-330-6366 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.
Anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience can access this 24-hour, toll-free and confidential National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.