Aboriginal Chiefs Plead for Help in Canada After Children Commit Suicide

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Wayne Moonias

First Nations chiefs in Ontario say help is urgently needed from the Canadian government after a staggering five children, including a 10-year-old, committed suicide in recent weeks.

"We've gone through a lot of losses to suicide," said Chief Wayne Moonias of Neskantaga First Nation, a community about 500 miles north of Thunder Bay, where a 14-year-old girl took her own life on January 9.

He spoke with VICE News from a gathering in Thunder Bay, Ont. of the 49 First Nations chiefs that make up Nishnawbe Aski Nation.

The leaders are calling on the federal and provincial governments to establish a special emergency task force to address what they called a "growing suicide epidemic" across their territory.

"It really puts an enormous pressure on a community, especially a small community like ours, where everybody has to put together to try to address and bridge some support services to the family that's in need," said Moonias, whose reserve declared a state of emergency in 2013 after seven youths took their own lives. Neskantaga has also been on a boil water advisory for 20 years.

A spokesperson for the Nishnawbe Aski Nation said that at least five children had committed suicide on their territory since December. A 10-year-old girl committed suicide in Bearskin Lake First Nation, and a 20-year-old woman in Fort Albany First Nation.

According to Northwest Local Health Integration Network report from 2010, the suicide rate for children under 15 in some First Nations communities in the region is 50 times the national average.

The Mushkegowuk Tribal Council, in an attempt to understand the suicide "pandemic" among First Nations youth, launched a "People's Inquiry" in 2013 and held hearings in a number of northern communities. The report was released in December and featured the first-hand stories of 77 people who had been affected by suicide, as well as recommendations and possible solutions.

Their report estimated that about 600 youth had thought about or actually tried to kill themselves between 2009 and 2011.

Related: A Suicide Crisis in Canada's Unforgiving North

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler told CBC that two 10-year-olds have died by suicide in less than two years.

"I can't even imagine what those families and those communities are going through," he said. "To bury a 10-year-old child that died by suicide is something I can't even begin to comprehend."

Moonias, who himself was related to the 14-year-old, said the youth suicide crisis continues. The news has left his small community stunned as most, including his own children, were connected to her in some way.

Moonias said communities as tightly-knit as his, where everyone is inevitably impacted by such losses, have no choice but to ask for external help.

"We need grief counseling, we need people that can work with the families that are impacted by these tragic losses, and that's what we need immediately," he said, adding that ongoing crisis support is also crucial, as are short and long-term strategies that address how frequent suicides can be prevented.

A study released on Tuesday by Statistics Canada says one in five Aboriginal people living off reserve have thought about suicide at some point in their lives. The prevalence of suicidal thoughts was higher among women in all Aboriginal groups than non-Aboriginal women. That was also the case for men, except Métis men.

The study covers people between the ages of 26 and 59, and also does not count indigenous people living on reserve. Mood and anxiety disorders, drug use and lack of high self worth were associated with suicidal thoughts, the study found. Heavy drinking and being widowed, divorced or separated were also factors for some groups. In addition, the experience of residential schools — the widely condemned and now abandoned practice of forcibly removing Aboriginal children from their homes and sending them to religious schools for assimilation — was "significantly associated" with suicidal thoughts.

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk 

Watch VICE Canada's documentary, Canada's Waterless Communities: Neskantagahere: