Residents of Canadian community suffering more than 100 suicide attempts: 'The damage has been done'

attawapiskat march

When Chief Bruce Shisheesh declared a state of emergency on April 9 for the suicide crisis in the Canadian aboriginal community of Attawapiskat, the news caused an international uproar.

There have been more than 100 attempts and at least one death since September, Shisheesh told CBC.

Canadian media descended on the Attawapiskat First Nation, and provincial and federal officials quickly made plans to fly out to the northern Ontario reserve.

On April 13, the Ontario government announced in a statement it would provide $2 million in assistance to the community. The prior evening, Canada’s House of Commons convened an emergency six-hour debate on the unfolding crisis.

Barely two weeks later, many Attawapiskat residents say they’re already wary of the government’s promises to solve the community’s suicide crisis.

“They want to look good … I’m not really optimistic until I see concrete steps taken from the Prime Minister’s office about his promises for renewed relationships,”  Jackie Hookimaw-Witt, an Attawapiskat resident who works as a photographer, told Business Insider. “This is just the tip. We need to address other physical and social infrastructure if we’re going to recover or heal from these oppressive conditions.”

In a series of tweets sent this week, Shisheesh criticized the government for not adequately providing Attawapiskat with adequate mental health services in the past, and prompted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to visit the community.

 In March, 28 attempted suicide in the community of 2,000. The crisis came to a head on April 9, when a staggering 11 attempts occurred within 24 hours.

Despite the emergency declaration and the 18-member crisis team deployed by Health Canada, five more children attempted suicide last Friday, according to Reuters. It was just days after police broke up a suicide pact between a dozen or so teenagers.

Canada’s indigenous affairs minister Carolyn Bennett and Charlie Angus, a member of parliament representing the area that includes Attawapiskat, arrived in Attawapiskat on Monday afternoon to meet with Shisheesh and the community’s newly established youth council. The officials promised the community a new youth center, but didn’t attach an immediate dollar figure.

Hookimaw-Witt was unimpressed.

“You know politicians. They look at their watches and they just want to come and go,” Hookimaw-Witt said. “If she was serious about telling us, ‘Your identity is important,’ how come she didn’t talk about changes to our education system?”

Hookimaw-Witt’s grand-niece Sheridan Hookimaw was 13 years old when she took her own life last October. The girl’s suicide was the only successful attempt to occur during the nine-month crisis. 

A new youth center in Attawapiskat was far from the only thing Sheridan needed, Hookimaw-Witt said. The teenager suffered from an array of illnesses, including diabetes, arthritis, obesity and asthma. Beyond that, Sheridan was homeless, according to Hookimaw-Witt, living in a packed two-bedroom “temporary residence” with 20 other people.

Like many First Nations communities in Canada, Attawapiskat has been plagued by long-standing infrastructural issues. Flooding and sewage backups have prompted emergency declarations in the past, CBC reported, leading to severe drinking-water and housing shortages.

The residents’ frustration was summed up by Robert Sutherland, an Attawapiskat youth who questioned Bennett sharply during her public meeting with the youth council on the priorities of the Canadian government.

“Tell me why we First Nations live in third world conditions,” Sutherland said, according to the Canadian Press. “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?”

attawapiskat meeting

The Canadian government has acknowledged the complexity of Attawapiskat’s problems, but many First Nations residents say they’re tired of rhetoric, and are waiting to see concrete solutions. 

“We know that as we move forward, communities like Attawapiskat need more than short-term fixes,” Bennett and Angus said in a joint statement following their visit. “We have to work together to put the interests of our young people first and ensure their voices are heard.”

Charles Hookimaw says that he has heard similar words before. The Attawapiskat First Nation member grew up in in the community, but moved to North Bay, Ontario several years ago, in part because of the reserve’s housing shortage. 

According to Hookimaw, assistance from the government frequently comes tightly controlled and with strings attached in the way of fees, administrative obstacles, and bureaucracy. 

“Even if the federal government provides let’s say 50 houses each year for five years, the community would have to go through a whole bunch of red tape in terms of allocating the land, the property. You need engineering, you need everything to go through approval, you need a plan to present,” he told Business Insider. “It just goes on and on and never ends.”

Hookimaw pointed to confusion surrounding the $2 million in assistance offered to the community as typical of Attawapiskat’s interactions with the provincial and federal governments. The assistance money will not be handled directly by community. Instead, the Ontario government announced it will fund a “youth regional coordination unit” and be supplied to the Mushkegowuk Council, an umbrella organization that represents six other First Nation communities in northern Ontario. 

This isn’t the first the First Nations communities have experienced suicide crises. In 2013, the nearby community of Neskantaga reported 20 suicide attempts and seven deaths within a year, CBC reported. To fight the crisis, the federal government funded an $800,000 suicide-prevention project to the regional health authority that serves Attawapiskat. However, the program was “sidetracked” from its goal of coordinating the area’s fragmented mental health services, and resulted in little more than two suicide-training sessions for workers and a contact list of regional service providers, the Globe and Mail reported.

Hookimaw says he tries not to be too cynical when it comes to his home community, but Attawapiskat’s problems run too deep for the superficial solutions the government proposes.

“For proper housing, safe drinking water — it’s going to take maybe 10, 20 years. The damage has been done, and it’s going to take awhile to rebuild again,” he said. “We will get through this with or without the government.”

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