“… And I hope that we will not have to bury one more innocent child – the future of our communities and the future of our nation.”
Sheila North Wilson, grand chief and representative of more than 75,000 indigenous people living across northern Canada, was in Ottawa last February to discuss the many issues plaguing First Nations communities. The memory of the conference speech she made there is now etched on her mind.
“Throughout the speech, my phone wouldn’t stop buzzing,” she recalls. “I didn’t think much of it.” But what she read next brought her to the floor.
“The text said my cousin Gabe had died – he had committed suicide that morning. I just went numb. Here I was giving a speech about the detrimental impact suicide had on our communities – and in the cruellest irony, my cousin had taken his life that morning.”
This was not the first time suicide had impacted Wilson’s family. “Gabe was 33, had three kids and so much life to offer. The only way I could come to terms with it was to say to myself that at least he wasn’t a teenager.” Four years ago, Wilson’s teenage nephew also killed himself.
The suicide epidemic affecting First Nations communities across Canada has been a national crisis for decades, but it attracted international headlines after three indigenous communities were moved to declare a state of emergency in response to a series of deaths.
In the spring of 2016, Attawapiskat First Nation reserve in Ontario declared a state of emergency after 11 young people tried to commit suicide in one night – adding to the estimated 100 attempts made over 10 months among this community of 2,000 people.
Not long after, it was revealed that six people, including a 14-year-old girl, had killed themselves over a period of three months in the Pimicikamak Cree Nation community of northern Manitoba. In the aftermath, more than 150 youths in this remote community of 6,000 were put on suicide watch.
Then in June this year, another First Nations reserve in Ontario lost three 12-year-old girls who had reportedly agreed a suicide pact. This string of tragic events has seen media and government turn the spotlight on an issue too often ignored in Canada.
Across the country, suicide and self-inflicted injury is the leading cause of death for First Nations people below the age of 44. Studies show young indigenous males are 10 times more likely to kill themselves than their non-indigenous male counterparts, while young indigenous females are 21 times more likely than young non-indigenous females.
Katrina, 16, lives on a reserve in central British Columbia with her family. She recently confided to a counsellor that she had contemplated suicide, and had even made a detailed plan on how she was going to carry it out.
“I felt like I had no other option; I felt hopeless,” Katrina recalls, adding that the stigma attached to being an aboriginal youth played a huge role in her contemplating suicide. “People call us freeloaders. They call us dirty Indians. I am judged because of my culture and heritage.”
Accounts of such prejudice are prevalent across the country. The government has been criticised for its lack of support and funding for First Nations communities, which total 1.4 million people – just under 4.3% of Canada’s population.
“We call that injustice,” says Roderick McCormick, an expert in indigenous health and suicide at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops BC. He suggests a complex web of severe poverty plus lack of education and basic necessities underpins the rise in suicides among indigenous youths.
“In terms of educational opportunities, healthcare and child welfare, the government is doing an injustice by not adequately funding our communities,” McCormick says. “When these remote reserves compare themselves to other communities across Canada, there is a huge gap that has become really evident.”
Recent research has found more than 100 reserves still lack housing, electricity or running water – with almost 90 of them being advised to boil their drinking water. Another study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that 60% of children on these reserves are living in poverty.
“The communities I represent are living in abject poverty,” Wilson says. “My people are the poorest in this country, and that’s not right.”
Health and educational services on First Nations reserves are also far below the national averages. “Secondary schools on reserves are about two grades behind urban schools,” Wilson says. “So when you tell young people to go to college, they are so behind in the curriculum they get overwhelmed. Youth are expected to succeed, but it is setting them up to fail.”
Experts say all of these factors are contributing to the lack of hope indigenous youths have about their futures – and that this creates a perfect breeding ground for mental health and addiction issues.
“When I fly into these isolated communities, all I do is contain the situation,” says Hilda Green, a psychotherapist who specalises in mental health and wellbeing in indigenous communities. “I am temporarily putting out fires – but if the community does not have full-time mental health experts to help them after I leave, those fires will ignite again.”
Green, who grew up on a First Nations reserve in central British Columbia, lost both her boyfriend and her brother to suicide as young adults. She believes there needs to be a shift in how the government handles mental health issues within indigenous communities. Instead of responding to crises after they have occurred, she says, funding needs to be allocated towards prevention.
“I have a client who has been through so much trauma,” Green explains. “All five of my client’s siblings committed suicide, leaving them as the only one left in their family. Yet I am expected to help them and so many others within a few hours and with little-to-no resources. That is not right. More needs to be done to prevent this from happening.”
Many regard the suicide epidemic as a symptom of a much bigger and deeper-rooted issue: Canada’s systemic, long-standing neglect of its indigenous people. This is encapsulated in the ongoing impact of the country’s residential school system, which saw more than 150,000 indigenous children taken from their homes in an attempt to forcibly assimilate them into Canadian society.