This summer, as Tataskweyak Cree Nation declared a local state of emergency following multiple youth suicides, the remote northern Manitoba community held a powwow.
Assembly of Manitoba Grand Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas was invited and now points to the event as an example of the resources — and grassroot effort — desperately needed to help communities like Tataskweyak move forward from the grip of crisis.
“It was a celebration and it something that was required by the community to help deal with the with the suicides that that were impacting their communities,” Dumas told Global News.
“Far too often, people feel that they’re isolated and they’re alone.
“Everybody needs to know that we come from loving communities and loving families and despite the trauma and the difficulties we’ve had, it’s our compassion and our caring for each other that helps carry us through.”
Over the past year and a half, 14 people from Tataskweyak First Nation have taken their own lives, including 11 youth. The community, which is connected by road to Thompson, has approximately 2,600 people living on reserve, with another 1,300 living off reserve.
In July the First Nation declared a state of emergency and asked federal and provincial authorities for urgent help to deal with the ongoing mental health crisis in the community.
A similar situation unfolded in Shamattawa First Nation in May, where a state of emergency was called after a single mother of four took her life and a seven-year-old girl was left in critical condition following a suicide attempt days later.
The community of 1,400 people roughly 750 km northeast of Winnipeg also declared a state of emergency following four suicides in a matter of weeks in 2016.
On Friday, World Suicide Prevention Day, Dumas said a combination of issues have added to the pressures already facing Indigenous communities, including the pandemic, addiction, and trauma.
He said the discoveries of unmarked mass graves at residential schools across Canada this summer have hit many especially hard.
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“It’s a multitude of these things that are coming to the forefront that that are affecting our communities,” he said.
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.
‘We know the youth are still facing a crisis’
In Tataskweyak kids are preparing to head back to school next week, and Chief Doreen Spence says the community is working on short-term and long-term planning to deal with the crisis.
She said school staff are being trained on suicide intervention and mental health therapists are also coming into the community.
“We know the youth are still facing a crisis but we are trying to have supports for them,” Spence said in an email.
“We encourage them to reach out to others to talk. We continue to work on activities to support, empower, and engage with the youth.”
But ultimately, Dumas said Indigenous communities need more federal help.
“These political parties at the moment who are who are aspiring to to lead our country need to be aware that these are real issues that need to be addressed and the proper and adequate resourcing needs to be made to look after people and look after people’s mental health,” he said.
“In Manitoba here, there is not enough treatment centres. There is not enough facilities to help with with addiction or mental health issues.
“We need a government that’s willing to listen and a government that’s not going to come and talk down to us. First Nations have been here for since the beginning — we know exactly what it is we need.”
— with files from Brittany Greenslade and Rachel Gilmore
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.
For a directory of support services in your area, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.
Learn more about how to help someone in crisis on the government of Canada’s website.