Canada sounds alarm over aboriginal youth suicide epidemic

Reuters News
Posted: Apr 12, 2016 1:37 PM

By Rod Nickel

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Canada's parliament will meet in an emergency session on Tuesday night over a rash of suicide attempts by aboriginal teenagers in a remote, poverty-stricken community whose people feel isolated from the rest of the world.

Over the past weekend alone, 11 people of the Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario tried to kill themselves, then a second group was brought to hospital Monday night after suicide attempts, prompting Chief Bruce Shisheesh to declare a state of emergency.

An 11-year-old child was in each of the groups treated over the past few days and the attempts follow a total of 28 attempted suicides in the month of March, some of them adults, health officials said.

The reasons for people trying to end their lives are varied but Attawapiskat leaders point to an underlying despondency and pessimism among their people as well as an increasing number of prescription drug overdoses since December.

Living in isolated communities with chronic unemployment and crowded housing, some young aboriginals lack clean water but have easy Internet access, giving them a glimpse of affluence in the rest of Canada. Attawapiskat, 966km (600 miles) north of Ottawa on James Bay, is only accessible by plane or winter ice road.

"We feel isolated - we don't feel part of the rest of the world," said Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, who represents 30 aboriginal communities. "The basic needs are astronomical."

Canada's 1.4 million aboriginals, who make up about four percent of the population, have a lower life expectancy than other Canadians and are more often victims of violent crime. The problems plaguing aboriginals gained prominence in January when a gunman killed four people in La Loche, Saskatchewan. An aboriginal teenager was charged in the shootings.

The emergency parliamentary session was requested by New Democrat legislator Charlie Angus whose constituency includes Attawapiskat. Angus wants Ottawa do more "to end this cycle of crisis and death among young people".

Another Canadian aboriginal community in the western province of Manitoba reported six suicides in two months and 140 suicide attempts in two weeks in an appeal for federal aid last month.

Since December, Attawapiskat has seen a rash of prescription drug overdoses sending youth to hospital in "a fairly new phenomenon," said Deborah Hill, vice-president of patient care at Weeneebayko Area Health Authority, whose region includes the community. Seven youth overdosed together on Saturday.

"An individual attempt at suicide is bad enough itself, but if there seems to be a group thing, it's even more cause for alarm," said National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations, Canada's main aboriginal political group.

Attawapiskat, which has 2,000 people and is near a diamond mine, the state of emergency was the fifth since 2006. The community has previously sounded the alarm over flooding and raw sewage issues, poor drinking water and a housing crisis.

In 2011, the United Nations special rapportuer for indigenous people said he was "deeply concerned" about living conditions in the Attawapiskat First Nation, which means people of the parting rocks.

Resident Jackie Hookimaw-Witt, whose teenage niece committed suicide last autumn, said it was the third attempt for one 13-year-old girl who survived on Saturday. She said the girl had been challenged to kill herself on social media.

In Cross Lake, Manitoba, dozens of people, many of them youths, have attempted suicide this year, said community health director Helga Hamilton. In some cases, groups of teenagers talked about group suicide before attempting to kill themselves separately, she said.

"That's the one thing I've never seen before," Hamilton said. "There were never suicide pacts before in the last 30 years that I'm aware of."

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who called this weekend’s suicide attempts “heartbreaking”, took power last year promising to tackle high levels of poverty, bad housing and poor health among aboriginal residents and promised a new "nation-to-nation relationship".

Last month, Canada said it would spend an extra C$8.37 billion over five years to help the aboriginal population deal with dire living conditions.

(Additional reporting by Alastair Sharp, Ethan Lou, Andrea Hopkins in Toronto and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; editing by Amran Abocar and Grant McCool)