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More Than 100 Attempts, One Death: The Face of a Tiny Canadian Community's Suicide Crisis

As legislators in the nation's capital prepared for an "emergency debate" on Attawapiskat, a small Indigenous reserve, residents are scrambling to cope with a crisis that, by many accounts, is far from over.
April 12, 2016, 5:50pm
Une photo de Sheridan Hookimaw. Propriété de Jackie Hookimaw-Witt

As an astonishing number of suicide attempts in recent days has drawn international attention to what is being called an epidemic in a small Indigenous community in Ontario, one family is still haunted by a young girl's last words.

"She apologized, asked her family not to blame themselves," Jackie Hookimaw-Witt said of the message left behind by her grand-niece, Sheridan, on her iPhone the day she took her own life.


It was last October, and she was only 13. Now, the child has become somewhat of a symbol for a crisis that's taken Attawapiskat, population 2,000, by storm.

Plagued by suicides and deplorable housing conditions for years, the reserve on Ontario's remote James Bay is in the news again after 11 suicide attempts in a single Saturday night, and over 100 in the last seven months, prompted local leaders to declare a state of emergency.

As legislators in the nation's capital prepared for an "emergency debate" on Attawapiskat Tuesday evening, residents on the ground were scrambling to cope with a crisis that, by many accounts, is far from over — as recently as Monday night, a group of children who appeared to have made a suicide pact were brought to hospital for assessment, the CBC reported. According to the Canadian Press, the hospital was so overwhelmed that about half of the youths were taken to a jail to await treatment. As police kept an eye on them, they told mental health counsellors a lack of things to do, overcrowding, and bullying were pushing them to turn to suicide.

Sheridan, who is the only person to have succeeded in her attempt at taking her own life in recent months, was a kind girl with a great sense of humor, Hookimaw-Witt told VICE News. "She was only 13, but very mature and articulate, caring."

Related: A Canadian Indigenous Community's Plea for Help Finally Heeded After 11 Suicide Attempts in One Day

But Sheridan suffered from a number of serious health conditions — respiratory issues, sleep apnea, thyroid problems, rheumatism that made it difficult for her to walk, diabetes, and obesity. She was being bullied at school, with teachers and other students calling her "fat and stupid," and frequently missed class to attend medical appointments.

While drugs and alcohol have played a role in some of the other attempts, a toxicology report showed none were found in Sheridan's system, Jackie stressed, cautioning the public against "pathologizing" the Indigenous population of Attawapiskat, where the youngest person to attempt suicide was 11 and the oldest was 71.


Sheridan, who was living in a temporary two-bedroom residence with about 20 family members after mould was discovered in their already overcrowded home, became overwhelmed by her surroundings, Jackie said.

"My niece was stressed out because she couldn't do her homework," she said. "There was no space."

Then came the devastating news that an uncle, who was like a father figure, had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

"Because she was young, it was hard for her body," Jackie said. "She couldn't take the emotional pain."

Her body was found by a police officer, who was patrolling an area known as "the first rapids" on Oct. 19.

After a months-long coroner's investigation, Sheridan's family finally heard in March that she hung herself. In a meeting with the coroner, they heard messages she'd recorded for them on her iPhone the day she died.

'We can talk all we want about wanting to make it better but if there's no resources, then it's not going to happen.'

"Her first recording in the morning said she didn't feel well, and that she felt sick. She also said, 'Today is the day I'm going to do it,'" Hookimaw-Witt recalled. "Another message they found said, 'I'm tired of being sick, I'm being teased.'"

Attawapiskat received national attention in 2011 when then-chief Theresa Spence declared a state of emergency over living conditions on the reserve. Spence went on a liquid diet, demanding to meet with the prime minister and governor general about the issues, including overcrowded homes.


A government-ordered audit, leaked to the media, found that there was little or no supporting documentation for $104 million spent by the community, much of which was intended for housing. Spence called the audit a "witch hunt." Her protest raised the profile of Idle No More, a social and political rights movement spearheaded by Indigenous people in Canada.

Five years later, Attawapiskat residents say problems persist.

It's not uncommon to hear air ambulances flying above the community, said Hookimaw-Witt. But that doesn't mean the residents have gotten used to the sound, which temporarily causes everyone to freeze up and wonder if another person is going to die, she said.

"What I sense from youth is that there's a lot of grief — very deep grief — and trauma," she said. "These are two critical factors that need to be addressed."

Local NDP MP Charlie Angus, who has been calling for mental health supports from the federal government for years, said while the media attention to the declared state of emergency has pushed the federal and provincial governments to act, it should've happened years ago. He said more focus needs to be placed on long-term solutions.

"The frontline workers are burnt out and traumatized," he said. "We are dealing with larger, systemic denials of services that have to be addressed."

Our youth from the coastal communities entering Attawapiskat as they cross Attawapiskat river. — jackie hookimaw (@muskegesko)April 8, 2016


Many indigenous leaders were disappointed to find that the the Liberal government's budget, which includes commitments to Indigenous education and lowering food costs in the north, didn't include funds for mental health services for Indigenous communities in northern Ontario.

"We can talk all we want about wanting to make it better but if there's no resources, then it's not going to happen," said Angus.

As of Monday morning, two mental health counsellors funded by Health Canada were on site, and three mental health workers were set to land. Meanwhile, the province committed to deploying its Emergency Medical Assistance Team (EMAT), consisting of nurses, nurse practitioners and social workers.

"The message I heard from the community was a real call of frustration, saying it shouldn't take a declared state of emergency to get health counsellors flown into a region when we've had 700 plus suicide attempts on the west side of James Bay in the last few years," he said.

He's not sure what's led to this spike, but believes that suicide and depression are contagious—and that a similar crisis would be dealt with much more swiftly if it took place in Southern Ontario.

"When you don't have supports in an isolated community, where people are sometimes living 15 to 18 people in a two-bedroom, mould-filled house, where there are no other supports for them, this despair can be magnified many times," Angus said.

'How could a child in a country like Canada be so ground down into hopelessness and poverty at such a young age?'

"How could a child in a country like Canada be so ground down into hopelessness and poverty at such a young age? That, to me, is a moral challenge to the very soul of this country."

The latest wave of suicide attempts comes after a recent 50 kilometer "healing walk" held by youth from Attawapiskat and neighboring communities.


Hookimaw-Witt said in the absence of resources and help from the government, it was the resilience of the teenagers, who finished the walk and offered "powerful" words in a final ceremony, that ultimately gave her hope.

But she's not done calling on the government to do its part.

"I don't want [Sheridan's] death to be in vain," she said. "I want the government to help our children, who are living in such extreme, third-world conditions.

"I want them to have hope that they'll grow up healthy, do something with their lives and not cut it short."

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk