Four fires were lit around a northern Saskatchewan community to guard its people and protect its youth, after a week where three young girls died and rumours of a suicide pact circulated online.
The small cemetery in La Ronge struggled to hold the stream of people who came together to mourn on Saturday. The gathering to celebrate the life of a 14-year-old girl—sharing stories and moose meat—was too familiar for the Indigenous community, who were already mourning two other young girls, between the ages of 12 and 14. They all committed suicide within four days.
"There's always visiting and going to the the person's house and bringing moose meat and just being there," Jody Ratt, a relative of the young girl, told VICE. Ratt lit her woodstove following the funeral and thought about her own four children. "We are not a big town so we all support each other and come together in a time of need like this, especially at a time like this."
"Everyone is still in disbelief and shock. It's tragic everytime you lose one youth, we've lost three," Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) Chief Bobby Cameron told VICE.
There were also nine suicide attempts in the community and more than 20 youth were considered at risk in the days following the young girls' deaths, with some sent south to Prince Albert to see a psychiatrist. Chief Tammy Cook-Searson said there is a "crisis" with the the community's youth and families.
While rumours circulated online about the suicide pact between some of the youth and a group calling themselves the "suicide squad," the community quickly responded. Local health centres and the band office began staying open all day and night and extra mental health workers were made available. There was also additional support from the Mental Wellness Team from the Prince Albert Grand Council.
"It's a huge concern," Cameron said. "Everyone is doing their part to address [a suicide pact] and stop it. That's one of our priorities right now to put a stop to it and address it."
Two of the girls were from Stanley Mission, a First Nation located in the heart of the boreal forest on the banks of the Churchill River. The other girl was from La Ronge, a larger town located about 80 kilometres southwest. All of the girls were members of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band (LLRIB), the largest First Nation in Saskatchewan.
Health Canada told VICE in a statement that the department will help fund therapy and travel costs for three mental health therapists to travel weekly to the community to provide counselling to at-risk youth on Fridays and Saturdays until the end of December.
Suicides make up 25 per cent of injury deaths in northern Saskatchewan with rates three times as high as in the rest of the province, according to a 2011 health indicators report by the northern Saskatchewan Population Health Unit. From 1998 to 2007, suicide was the leading cause of injury deaths in northern Saskatchewan, surpassing traffic collisions by nearly 10 per cent.
Suicide clusters and specifically pacts among youth are becoming an increasing concern for Indigenous communities. Eleven people attempted suicide in one night on the isolated Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario in April and a group of children were overheard making a pact and brought to hospital for assessment. In Manitoba, the Pimicikamak Cree Nation declared a crisis after six people committed suicide in March—once again the band was concerned there was a suicide pact.
"Many people will struggle to understand why a young person takes their life far too soon, some of us though have a bit of understanding as we may have been there before," Kevin Roberts, the head of sports, culture and recreation with LLRIB, wrote on Facebook.
"We don't like the poverty, having to go to bed hungry, wondering what's for tomorrow's supper, wishing you had certain foods, decent clothes, money for lunch or school pictures. We hate the fact we might live on welfare, it's humiliating, embarrassing and there's no pride in it."
Roberts went on to say that there are many things that can contribute to kids feeling sad, especially the stigma associated with mental health. "There are some pretty tough life realities many kids are going through right now. It's hard to grasp or understand if you haven't been there or experienced it," he wrote.
Although a First Nations Youth suicide prevention strategy was developed in 2001-02, experts say it's implementation has been slow if not absent, and many are calling for a national suicide strategy. Canada is the only developed country without a national funded program dedicated to reducing the suicide rate, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.In April, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published an editorial which said the 2017 federal budget must include money for a national suicide prevention strategy, "starting with funds to create a centre of expertise that will engage with leading indigenous organizations," to address "what has become a national public health crisis."
In June, the Liberal government announced an investment of around $70 million over three years to address the health and suicide crisis involving Indigenous people. Communities and Indigenous organizations, including Native Women's Association of Canada, say it's a step but not enough.
Aboriginal young adults are twice as likely as non-Aboriginal young adults to report having had suicidal thoughts, according to a study on suicidal thoughts among off-reserve First Nations youth released from Statistics Canada and NWAC on Thursday.
"The suicide epidemic in our Indigenous communities requires immediate action," said NWAC President Francyne Joe in a statement, adding that long-term solutions, improved resources and culturally-aware mental health services are urgently needed.
In northern Saskatchewan under the sprawling sky within the beautiful boreal forest, Indigenous leadership is calling for people to listen to the youth about what they need right now.
"The bottom line is we need resources to support these communities in implementing their own solutions," FSIN Vice-Chief Robert Merasty told MBC Radio.
"We need to respond now, the call to action is now. The La Loche [school shooting] happened months ago and nothing has happened, we need to reach out to these young people now."
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