A small northern Ontario First Nation has declared a state of emergency after two young men took their own lives, following seven tragic sudden deaths and 20 other suicide attempts within the last year. “We have reached a breaking point, and our community is under crisis,” said Neskantaga First Nation councillor Roy Moonias. “Our community is exhausted emotionally and physically as we try to pick up the pieces from these tragic events.” The community heard about the suicide of a 19 year-old man just as they were putting to rest another man who took his own life.
The Neskantaga First Nation is a remote fly-in community located some 480 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay with a population of 421 people, about 75% percent youth. The community faces social challenges, including a high rate of prescription drug abuse (about 50% of the population), poor water quality (currently under a boil water advisory), inadequate policing services, issues of sexual abuse, and no access to proper mental health care and addiction treatments.
Ontario Aboriginal Affairs Minister David Zimmer said Ottawa is not doing enough to address the staggering poverty and substance abuse on northern First Nations communities. Zimmer said federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Belcourt didn’t even bother to show up at a recent two-day meeting of provincial and territorial Aboriginal Affairs ministers held in Winnipeg. “We have to tackle this issue of suicides on the reserves and indeed off-reserves,” said Zimmer.”We’ve got to push the federal government to do their bit.” He said while First Nations reserves are the responsibility of the federal government, Emergency Management Ontario is on stand-by to work with Ottawa and Neskantaga to coordinate support during the crisis.
The First Nation needs immediate resources to increase policing and requires assistance supplying food, safe water, accommodations, and transportation to deal with the expected support staff coming to the community. They are calling on government, health providers, and social service agencies to collectively support the First Nation. “There are no treatments here, and more and more young people are taking their lives,” said Moonias. “This is unacceptable and must change. We are getting frustrated and concerned for our young people and entire community that Health Canada has not stepped up to ensure we have adequate resourcing available to deal with and prevent such crippling incidents from taking place.”
Ottawa has since pledged additional nursing and counselling staff. “Our hearts go out to those who have lost friends and loved ones to suicide,” said Health Minister Susan Aglukkaq. “Health Canada will work closely with the community and send both additional nursing and counselling staff to assist during this difficult time.”
Valcourt spokeswoman Andrea Richler said the minister continues to work with First Nations communities and their leaders, as well as the provinces, to improve living conditions on reserve communities and create opportunities for First Nations. “Since assuming his role earlier this year, the Minister has focused on traveling to almost every region of the country, including remote First Nations communities, to meet with First Nations community members, youth and leaders to hear first-hand from them how we can work together to achieve our shared objective of healthier, more self-sufficient and prosperous communities,” stated Richler.
Moonias said since the crisis was declared, federal Aboriginal Affairs was not releasing any additional funding to deal with the crisis until outstanding financial reports are completed. Every government department wants a funding proposal before releasing money to the Neskantaga, but very few people in the community are capable of drafting budgets and crafting proposals. Following seven tragic deaths in ten months, most administrators in Neskantaga are on bereavement leave, and there is little capacity to complete the reports.
The First Nation is asking for $600,000 from government to deal with the immediate crisis. So far, the federal government has committed half that amount, and Ontario has committed about $100,000. Neskantaga leaders say that amount is sufficient for just the most pressing needs, but more money will be needed if future suicides are to be prevented. Health Canada reported in 2012 that suicide occurs five to six times more among Aboriginal youth than others. Last year, the National Aboriginal Health Organization’s funding budget was completely cut from the federal budget. It was the only health program that worked to support Aboriginal health concerns, especially suicide and infant mortality.