Northern Manitoba First Nation Declares State Of Emergency: AFN Calls For National Suicide Strategy

The Pimicikamak Cree Nation in remote northern Manitoba declared a state of emergency on March 9th after six suicides in two months since December 12, 2015 and an additional 140 suicide attempts in the last two weeks alone. The community of 8,300, also known as the Cross Lake, is located 500 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

Pimicikamak Acting Chief Shirley Robinson declared the state of emergency as the suicide crisis spread. An additional 100 children are on suicide watch. Robinson said she hopes the declaration will prompt the federal government to send more qualified short-term health workers to address the suicides and attempts at self harm. “We’ve been utilizing all our frontline workers: nurses, doctors, school teachers, and local clergy, but we don’t have enough manpower to reach out to everyone,” she said in a Reuters interview. The latest suicide in Cross Lake was that of a 34-year-old mother of three and a cousin of Robinson.

The Pimicikamak First Nation is the province’s third largest Aboriginal community. They are asking for at least six mental health workers with counsellors available 24 hours a day. The Pimicikamak are also asking for increased job opportunities, a hospital, and youth recreation facilities. The acting chief said her community has an unemployment rate of 80% and housing is “neither safe nor healthy.” In one case, as many as 27 people are living in one house. Robinson said she is working with the Canadian government to try and resolve the housing and employment issues. She said only one health worker has been sent to address the crisis.

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde called for a national strategy to fight what he called a devastating suicide epidemic faced by Aboriginal communities across the country. Following a speech in Winnipeg the next day, Bellegarde said the issue is much greater than the Cross Lake experience. Aboriginal youth are up to seven times more likely to commit suicide than the national average, he said. “It’s a bigger issue than just Cross Lake,” said Bellegarde. “There’s got to be a huge intervention there, but also in a lot of communities across Canada. There’s got to be a national strategy on mental health to deal with the youth suicide that is rampant amongst our communities.” That strategy has to include adequate mental health supports, proper education, and the restoration of cultural pride among young people, he said.

In December, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to improve relationships with Canada’s First Nations and to tackle issues of poverty, crime, and health, as well as launch an inquiry into the cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Canada’s 1.4 million Aboriginals have higher levels of poverty and a shorter life expectancy than other Canadians and are more often victims of violent crime, addiction, and incarceration. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada said officials have reached out to offer assistance “and will work with the community to help address their mental health needs in this difficult time” according to an emailed statement.

“We need support workers and a crisis team on the ground now,” said AFN Manitoba Regional Chief Kevin Hart. “The community and leadership know what needs to happen, and governments should be working with them and following their direction. We need urgent action to end this state of emergency, and we need to work with the community to create a new environment of hope and opportunity for our young people.”