Canada Had All the Information It Needed to Predict Attawapiskat Suicide Crisis

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Eleven people attempted suicide in one night and the isolated Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario became Canada's most talked about story. A week later five children tried to take their owns lives too. In total there's been more than 100 suicide attempts in the last seven months.

Following Chief Bruce Shisheesh's announcement that the community was in a state of emergency, crisis teams were deployed while politicians gathered for an emergency debate in the House of Commons.

But it's not the first "crisis" declared in the community, which is located on James Bay. In 2006, there was a state of emergency after the drinking water caused people to be sick, dizzy, and develop rashes. A few years later, there was another emergency when sewage backed up into multiple homes, compounding a housing shortage. That meant in 2011 and 2013, more emergencies were declared related to the housing shortages and failing infrastructure. 

It's a community that's all too aware that declaring a crisis doesn't actually mean anything significant will change. 

Read More: Justin Trudeau to Visit Remote First Nations Community for VICE Special 

Within the last 12 months, there have been multiple "crisis" states declared in Indigenous communities across the country, including even the entire territory of Nunavut—where 84 percent of the population are Inuit. 

Canadians have begun to ask what exactly is happening, but we should already know.

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal People, an inquiry into the government's relationship with Canada's Indigenous population following the Oka Crisis and Meech Lake Accord, was published 20 years ago. Dr. Caroline Tait says it remains as relevant today as ever.

"What do you find 20 years ago? The same conversations we are having now about suicide. The same conversations we are having now about the lack of mental health. The same conversations that we are having around socio economic development," Tait told VICE.

Tait, who is Métis, is a psychiatry professor in the College of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan and helped start the First Peoples-First Person Indigenous Hub, which is an research initiative to examine mental wellness issues among Canada's first peoples who have experienced depression, suicide, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Tait said when Indigenous people seem angry, frustrated, and exhausted as they call out for recognition and help, "it's because people have gone to the table over and over and over again."

The 20-year-old report does parallel this week's headlines.

"Media reports had given Canadians new reasons to be disturbed about the facts of life in many Aboriginal communities: high rates of poverty, ill health, family breakdown and suicide. Children and youth were most at risk," the 1996 report states.

An abandoned van rests in the northern Ontario First Nations reserve of Attawapiskat. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

An abandoned van rests in the northern Ontario First Nations reserve of Attawapiskat. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

'Every Single Person in Nunavut Has Been Affected by Suicide'

One of the reasons Canada conveniently forgets the multiple recommendations and reports around youth suicide and mental health is that when it comes to Indigenous peoples they are considered "the other," Tait argues.

"They are othering them, that they are always [Indigenous] children which makes it easier for people to sleep at night and not worry about it because there is a real lack of knowledge because we haven't taught in schools the proper history of this country," she said.

"People look at it and say this is their own fault, they are doing this to themselves, or they get everything for free... they have all of these benefits and they can't get it together. So there is a real lack of knowledge in the general public."

A Statistics Canada report released in January said more than one in five Aboriginal adults living off-reserve say they've contemplated suicide at some point in their lives. In Inuit communities, between 1999 and 2003, suicide rates were 10 times higher than rates for the Canadian population overall.

"For far too long Inuit have been taking their lives or attempting to take their lives. In fact, Inuit have the highest suicide rates in the world," Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna told VICE.

In October, Taptuna declared suicide a crisis in the territory. It followed a coroner's inquest into suicide where the jury said the government needed to declare suicide a public health emergency. Taptuna said they decided to take it one step further and declare a crisis because a public health emergency was too temporary.

"Every single person in Nunavut has been affected by suicide in some way or another. It's a deeply emotional and concerning issue," he said.

Since Nunavut is a territory, actions from the federal government are different, but many of the issues are similar to elsewhere in Canada.

"There is no base infrastructure in our territory and no assessment on the true cost to deliver services in the North," Taptuna said, adding there is a lack of housing and loss of culture.

"Without these elements our ability to provide the same services as other jurisdictions is hindered. This also impacts on the well-being of our people."

Tait said that if these statistics were reflected in the general population, there would be an uproar and lasting change.

Lots of Reports, Little Action

Tait said the federal government has written multiple reports, gathered multiple recommendations, and made many promises over decades.

For Indigenous communities, the growing rate of suicide is a problem that impacts everyone and causes a ripple effect of trauma, possibly accounting for suicide clusters, Health Canada's website explains.

"We've had a national youth suicide strategy now for well over a decade. There were recommendations that were put together by a panel of people, some of whom were my close colleagues," Tait said.

"Some of it is that we do a lot of investigation and synthesis of the information, we have produced reports, we have produced recommendations, but one of the questions long term is what's going to happen with the recommendations?"

Those recommendations often look at overarching issues of equal funding, education, housing, infrastructure, and access to other health services. Manitoba Assembly Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak says it's also important to look at re-engaging and investing in Indigenous language and culture.

"We have to do something differently and providing mental health solutions is one small niche of support," Nepinak told VICE.

"A focus on mental health, to me, is of the construct of Western European psychological thinking which I think will try to hem the matter into a very small area of inquiry when in fact the discussion has to be much more broadly based."

A 1998 report showed a connection between preserving and rehabilitating culture, self-governance and reduction in Indigenous youth suicide.

The report showed that due to impacts of colonization, it is increasingly difficult for Indigenous youth to see themselves as continuous—meaning having a future—if they don't have a connection to culture.

Nepinak saw that when Pimicikamak Cree Nation declared a suicide crisis in March.

"It is a national crisis. It goes beyond the boundaries of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and so forth. For us the approach that we've spent a lot of time dedicating our energies to is recognizing the containment that is promoted intergenerationally through the Indian Act system," he said.

"We believe that we have to move beyond the Indian Act system and we have to move forward to establish new mechanisms and new relationships founded upon the principles of equity, the principles of giving people access to basic human services and basic human rights, and I think shelter."

Dropping the Indian Act, something hard to consider even a few years ago, is becoming a real option. At an emergency meeting last week, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said the government was looking for it's end.

"It is not easy to remove the shackles of 140 years of life under the Indian Act. Our government and I hope all members of this honourable house is committed to ensuring in partnership that we work with Indigenous Peoples to do just that," she said.

She said we need to develop a reconciliation framework that will survive the life of just one government. Tait said she agrees.

"What if we move it out of the political arena and put it in the ethical and moral arena and whatever we come up with for a strategy is for the next 30 years—which is where you will see the change occur, it is over one generation," she said.

When the Headlines Disappear

When Indigenous communities declare a state of emergency or a crisis it's because they need help now and into the future, but it doesn't always last.

In March, three Saskatchewan First Nations declared a mental health emergency after around 100 drug-related deaths in 2015. Leaders from the Cote, Key and Keeseekoose First Nations called on all levels of government for help protecting their youth.

Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nation Vice Chief Bob Merasty told VICE they are already signed on with the federal government in larger mental health and wellness strategy but they are "just waiting for the implementation of it."

It's been over a month, and there doesn't appear to be any other commitment from provincial or federal governments to help with the crisis.

"There is an enormous amount of frustration around having this big lens being put on you for a period of time and stories created about who you are and then having things just die down," Tait explained.

"One day it's La Loche and then it's over at Attawapiskat," she added. "But what we see is that there is similarities in all of these contexts."

READ MORE: La Loche School Shooting Highlights Systemic Poverty and Racism: First Nations Leaders

In La Loche, Saskatchewan, students have reentered their classrooms after a shootingin the small Dene community in March left four people dead. The shooter, who is now 18, also injured seven others.

Only a few months later the member of parliament for the region, Georgina Jolibois, stood in the House of Commons and asked if her colleagues remembered her asking for additional services, since none had come. Jolibois said there have been more suicide attempts in La Loche since the shooting.

"It is heartbreaking and it is very hard and very sad," Jolibois told VICE.

"When we go to the health centre for example after hours the staff on duty would probably only be a nurse and an LPN, or a doctor on call or maybe an ambulance, that would be the kind of service available after hours. There is none for mental health or addictions. When families are experiencing PTSD and other stresses, they are having a really hard time, there is no one, really."

Tait said it is better to invest ahead of time so a crisis isn't called but that governments' like to see statistics if funding is going to be sustained.

"How do you measure the success of prevention? You need 10-plus year to show you've reduced suicide rates in a health region," she said. "There are challenges in ways to show that there is a long term, sustainable impact."

She pointed to the end of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, which had a mandate for community-based healing initiatives, and the non-profit National Aboriginal Health Organization. Both organizations had their funding cut under the former Conservative government.

"The communities are so used to having the dollars dropped in, having it run for two or three years, just getting it up and running and getting some momentum, and then the funding is no longer there," she said.

Will it be different for Attawapiskat, Nunavut, Pimicikamak, La Loche, or the multiple other communities? Despite decades of proof to the contrary, community members certainly hope so.

Follow Geraldine Malone on Twitter.