It was minus 40 degrees as six Innu children huddled together for warmth inside a shack in Davis Inlet, located in Newfoundland and Labrador. They were huffing gasoline and on the brink of death.
“They were screaming in my face, ‘I want to die, I want to die. I want to hang myself. I don’t care if I die,’” Simeon Jacobish, the local constable who found them that night, told CBC News in 1993. He took the children — between the ages of 11 and 14 — to an alcohol treatment centre, where it took several adults all night to calm them down.
“Let me go. I want to sniff gasoline. I want to kill myself,” one girl said to the camera. At that time, more than half of the community had reportedly attempted to end their lives.
Reflecting on the incident a couple days later, Jacobish understood their pain.
“Let me go. I want to sniff gasoline. I want to kill myself”
“Inside they’ve got a lot of anger. And like myself, I’ve got anger too,” he said. “But I don’t blame those kids, it’s not their fault. It’s the government’s fault.”
It’s a refrain still repeated by Indigenous communities across the country, as a wave of suicides has gripped Northern Ontario First Nations. Dozens of youth from remote reserves have taken their own lives this year alone. No level of government is tracking exact numbers nationally, but sky-high suicide rates among Inuit, Métis, and First Nations in Canada have been well-documented over many decades.
And throughout that time, countless studies, coroner reports, and government committees have provided context and concrete solutions — yet glaring funding and resource gaps remain, resulting in a patchwork of knee-jerk responses. Even federal health minister Jane Philpott acknowledged in a recent interview with VICE News that a long list of recommendations made over the years have yet to be implemented.
But this week, federal and Ontario health ministers will sign a Charter with Indigenous leaders from the province’s north that is expected to transform and improve the ways healthcare is delivered to communities within the Nishnawbe Aski Nation. It’s this, and many other solutions, that experts say are long overdue for communities across the country.
A history of tragedy
Within six months between 1974 to 1975, there were seven suicides in Wikwemikong, a First Nation community of about 2,500 on Manitoulin Island in Ontario. These cases have been described as one of the first suicide “epidemics” in Indigenous communities in the country, drawing significant attention from the media and the provincial coroner. The episode triggered an inquest and ensuing government reports, which recommended local counselling and addictions services that bolstered well being. But the problem still remains.
Others include promoting “equitable access by all Aboriginal communities” to programs and resources for the prevention of suicide and self-harm.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there were a number of suicide outbreaks within Indigenous communities from Bella Bella in British Columbia, which saw teens taking their lives every month, to New Brunswick, where the Big Cove First Nation, now called Elsipogtog, reported seven suicides and 75 suicide attempts in 1992. Another inquest was struck that recommended familiar solutions: Addictions treatment, job creation, permanent health resources within the community, and efforts to promote self-government.
The issue of Indigenous suicides prompted the 1995 Royal Commission to publish Choosing Life: Special report on suicide among Aboriginal People. “[I]f we fail to address urgent problems, Aboriginal people will have no reason to believe that the future can be different from the past,” begins the report, which was the result of 172 days of public hearings in 92 communities in Canada.
Its 13 recommendations included the goal that “every Aboriginal community has at least one resource person trained in suicide prevention, intervention and postvention (grief support) techniques” and that the federal government supports Indigenous communities in convening a national suicide prevention forum in the first, fourth, seventh, and 10th years of the nation-wide campaign. Others include promoting “equitable access by all Aboriginal communities” to programs and resources for the prevention of suicide and self-harm.
In an interview last week with VICE News, Health Minister Jane Philpott noted the “significant number of recommendations” made by the Royal Commission, “most of which have not been acted upon.”
The same can be said of a number of other coroner reports on Indigenous suicides, including one from Quebec this year, which called for abolishing the Indian Act and fostering cultural identity.
And this June, a report of the standing committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs put forward similar solutions, including increasing funding for community centres and culturally appropriate programming.
“A lot of excuses”
For Bruce Shisheesh, former chief Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario, the waiting has been fatal. His community declared a state of emergency last April after a number of young people took their lives, and dozens more attempted to. There were 11 suicide attempts among youth there in one night.
“We need long-term solutions.”
Shisheesh blames a chronic lack of mental health funding and resources, which he says are still lacking more than one year later after the suicide spike. Even though Health Canada did provide funding for two mental health workers, he says they haven’t been able to serve full-time due to a lack of proper housing.
“There can be a lot of excuses. But we don’t have time. We’re losing our young people, our future chiefs, our future doctors, our future nurses,” Shisheesh said in an interview.
Other communities, including Cross Lake in Manitoba that declared a state of emergency after at least six people died by suicide within three months from 2015 to 2016, have said a lack of permanent mental health counsellors prolongs the healing process and makes it difficult to build trust.
“We need long-term solutions. We also need land-based healing to teach our kids culture, healing, like fishing and hunting, land,” Shisheesh added. “It would be great if the government can give us those opportunities, those resources to train our own people.”
And these kinds of solutions appear to work for some Indigenous communities that have already implemented them. Bella Bella and Snuneymuxw First Nations in B.C. have both addressed their suicide crises through land-based programming for youth that focuses on empowerment and healing practices rooted in traditional culture.
In the meantime, Shisheesh is doing his own outreach.
“I’m travelling all over the region, reaching out to the young people through singing, gospel outreaches and so forth. With no government funding,” he said. “I tell them that suicide is not the answer. And I tell them avoid alone time. I tell them to hook up with friends and talk to them or talk to me.”
“The steps for responding are so clear”
In the most recent budget, the Liberals pledged $118.2 million over five years for mental health services for First Nations and Inuit peoples. According to an op-ed by Philpott last week, the number of communities supported by mental wellness workers will increase from 86 to 240.
“And there’s been no sense of urgency.”
But Charlie Angus, an NDP member of Parliament whose riding includes many First Nations grappling with suicides, has long criticized the federal government’s response to the suicide crisis — and other issues around poverty and medical treatment — as ad hoc and insufficient.
“It’s almost impossible to talk about the deep levels of systemic negligence and malpractice put forward by the federal government without sounding crazy at this point,” he said. “Because the crisis is so obvious, the steps for responding are so clear, and you just see such staggering levels of indifference.”
Angus pointed to the situation in Wapekeka First Nation, where three 12-year-old girls recently died by suicide. The community used to be a beacon of hope on suicide prevention with successful programs it started in response to 16 suicides between 1982 and 1999.
The federal government cut the funding for that program two years ago.
“[Health Canada] will only send in the teams if enough young people die and enough media ask questions,” he said. “Otherwise, the young people are dying one here, one there, two here, two on another day. And these are wartime death numbers in terms of what we’re facing in the North.
“And there’s been no sense of urgency.”