Suicide crisis grows at Ontario First Nation

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A tattered Canadian flag flies over a building in Attawapiskat, Ont., on November 29, 2011. A remote northern Ontario First Nation has declared a state of emergency after numerous suicide attempts this week. Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS
A tattered Canadian flag flies over a building in Attawapiskat, Ont., on November 29, 2011. A remote northern Ontario First Nation has declared a state of emergency after numerous suicide attempts this week. Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS
A federal and provincial crisis team has flown to a northern Ontario First Nation that declared a state of emergency over the weekend after 11 residents attempted to kill themselves Saturday night.

Officials at the Attawapiskat First Nation, a Cree community of 2,000 on remote James Bay, say a total of 101 people of all ages have tried to commit suicide since September, 28 of them in March.

The youngest was 11, the oldest was 71. One, a 13-year-old girl, succeeded. In September, a group of five girls overdosed and had to be flown out of the community.

Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde on Monday called for immediate action and long-term support for community based prevention strategies in response to the state of emergency declared by the leadership of Attawapiskat First Nation.

“The situation facing the people of Attawapiskat is a national tragedy that demands immediate action and I have reached out to Chief Bruce Shisheesh to offer our full support,” Bellegarde said in a statement. “I have spoken with Federal Health Minister (Jane) Philpott and Ontario Health Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins to request immediate resources to deal with this crisis – both on the short and long term. Both Ministers reassured me that they are moving swiftly to work with the community in the wake of this weekend’s terrible events.”

Residential school legacy

Chief Bruce Shisheesh says there are many causes for suicide attempts, including overcrowding in homes, bullying, and the lasting effects of emotional damage of abuse during enrolment at government and church-run residential schools.

Chief Shisheesh also cited drug abuse, saying many residents try to numb themselves after physical and sexual abuse.

On Twitter, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the news from Attawapiskat “heartbreaking.”

The crisis team includes mental health nurses and social workers.

Last month, Pimicikamak Cree Nation (Cross Lake) in Manitoba declared a state of emergency due to youth suicide.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada:  The elephant in the room – Mental health in Arctic communities, Blog by Heather Exner-Pirot

Finland:  OECD ‘concerned’ over high suicide rates in Finland, YLE News

Sweden:  County in Sweden’s North has best mental health in country, Radio Sweden

United States:  In Northwest Arctic, teens lead the way in suicide prevention, Alaska Dispatch

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