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

Attawapiskat, a James Bay community of about 2,000 people, has been plagued by suicide for decades, but the crisis reached new heights on Saturday.

by Tamara Khandaker
Apr 11 2016, 6:30pm

Imagen por Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Coming to grips with an alarming rash of suicide attempts in a single night, and many more in the months prior, an overwhelmed Ontario First Nation is finally getting the mental health workers and nurses it's been asking for since October.

Attawapiskat, a James Bay community of about 2,000 people, has been plagued by suicide for decades, but the crisis reached new heights when 11 people attempted suicide on Saturday, prompting a unanimous vote from Chief Bruce Shisheesh and council to declare a state of emergency.

The designation means a crisis response team from Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents eight First Nations including Attawapiskat, is being sent in to help. The unit includes two mental health counsellors funded by Health Canada, who are now on site, and three mental health workers who are set to land today.

Meanwhile, the province will be deploying its Emergency Medical Assistance Team (EMAT), consisting of nurses, nurse practitioners and social workers, said a joint statement from Health Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins and Aboriginal Affairs Minister David Zimmer.

Related: Aboriginal Chiefs Plead for Help in Canada After Children Commit Suicide

Announcing the province's commitment to send in a crisis team on Twitter, Shisheesh noted that the community has been waiting since October.

Since September, 101 suicide attempts has resulted in one death — 13-year-old Sheridan Hookimaw took her own life in October. The youngest person to attempt suicide was just 11 years old, while the oldest was 71.

The traumatizing wave of suicides began in September, when five teenage girls attempted suicide by drug overdose and had to be flown out of the community for treatment.

In a tweet on Sunday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the news "heartbreaking," promising to work to improve living conditions for all Indigenous peoples.

Health minister Jane Philpott said the "loss of life to suicide and the feelings of despair felt by the community of Attawapiskat" was a reminder of "how important it is to work with First Nations and Indigenous peoples across the country to address the very real challenges facing their communities."

Sheridan's grand-aunt Jackie has been speaking out about the suicide crisis since her niece's death, which left her family in shock. While Sheridan was suffering from a number of medical ailments and being bullied at school, Jackie said poverty, and the psychological trauma of residential schools, which continues to haunt the community generations later, along with the restrictions of living on a reservation, serve as triggers.

Related: They Died Young and Mysteriously — Now We May Finally Know Why

"Kids here feel lost in the world," she said. "Feeling disempowered because their culture and identity is not respected. There's not enough housing, there's issues with water and health, there's no jobs, so people start turning to drugs, and there's trauma from residential schools."

"It's a symptom or a manifestation of colonialism that's rupturing now because they can only hold so much before they start to bleed out."

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk