Long-term suffering behind suicide crisis among Canada’s indigenous people

(Credit: Alex Indigo/Flickr)

A series of suicide attempts in the Attawapiskat First Nation community in northern Ontario, Canada, has prompted the community’s Chief Bruce Shisheesh to declare a state of emergency.  As suicide and self-inflicted injuries continue to be the leading causes of death for indigenous populations across the country, some are considering the problem a national crisis.

The suicide crisis has been years in the making, stemming from a long history of poverty, chronic unemployment and generations of sexual, physical and psychological abuse among Canada’s indigenous. Many of the country’s 1.4 million aboriginal members live in poor conditions, in isolated communities with dismal, crowded housing, and lack basic necessities like water and electricity.

Some indigenous activists have compared the living conditions of indigenous Canadians to that of developing countries. In these communities, it almost goes without saying that mental health resources are far from sufficient.

“There really is next to nothing for mental health services,” Dr. Rod McCormick told HuffingtonPost. McCormick is an indigenous mental health expert based in British Columbia’s Shuswap reserve and professor of Aboriginal Child and Maternal Health at Thompson Rivers University. “It’s just a shame that you have to declare a state of emergency before you can get the resources.”

After the recent spike in suicide attempts, the federal and provincial governments pledged to support and deploy a crisis team of mental health workers and nurses to the Attawapiskat community. Ontario’s health minister also announced that up to $2 million CAD in funding would be made available for resources, according to Huffington Post, including 24-hour mental health support services and a proposed youth center.

“It’s great, but $2 million is not going to go too far,” said McCormick. “It certainly isn’t a long-term solution.”

Any long-term solutions would require systemic changes in more than one indigenous community alone. These are communities that have been widely oppressed and neglected for decades, in part due to the Indian Act, a controversial 140-year-old document that allows the Canadian government to control the affairs of registered indigenous groups and reserves. Throughout its history, the document has been regarded as paternalistic and intrusive the Assembly of First Nations even describes it as a form of apartheid and the campaign to abolish the Indian Act remains ongoing.

Indigenous activists and their allies, calling themselves #OccupyINAC, began an occupation at the INAC (Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada) offices in Toronto last week.  The demonstrations spread to Winnipeg the next day, where protesters issued a news release demanding the abolition of the Indian Act, which they say has led to the crushing poverty that fuels the suicide crisis.

Activists hope that increased media coverage will stimulate more productive conversation and action regarding the future of these communities. In Attawapiskat, Ontario, this conversation reached authorities firsthand when several youths expressed their frustration to the federal indigenous affairs minister, Carolyn Bennett, on Monday, according to the Canadian Press.

“Tell me why we First Nations we live in Third World conditions,” said one young man during a meeting with Bennett and other officials, the Canadian Press reported. “Why is it so easy for the government to welcome refugees and offer them first-class citizenship in our country? When will Canada wake up and open its eyes to First Nations communities?”

A Canadian Cabinet minister who made a recent visit to Attawapiskat said the government was finalizing a comprehensive plan to help the community.

According to Reuters, Bennett told reporters that the plan was imminent: “We had a good, frank discussion,” Bennett said. “It’s no longer going to be Band-Aids and piecemeal. It’s going to be a real plan.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com