Three children and a 21-year-old man have died by suicide in a number of Indigenous communities in northern Ontario since last Friday.
Deputy Grand Chief Anna Achneepineskum of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation said that two 12-year-olds from Pikangikum, Ont., a First Nations community near the Ontario-Manitoba border, killed themselves. The girl and boy were taken to medical facilities in Winnipeg where they were pronounced dead, she said.
On Tuesday, a 15-year-old girl died by suicide in Nibinamik, Ont., north of Fort Hope. And a day later, a 21-year-old man from the Fort Severn First Nation died in a Thunder Bay medical centre.
There have now been 18 suicides, including the most recent deaths, within the Nishnawbe Aski Nation’s territory since Jan. 1 of this year, according to statistics provided by a Nishnawbe Aski Nation spokesman.
Health Canada said it’s reached out to Pikangikum, Nibinamik and Fort Severn First Nations to offer its support.
“Our heartfelt condolences go out to the families and communities that are grieving as a result of these tragedies,” Health Canada said in a statement Friday.
Local authorities are also sending in teams of support workers and clinicians to monitor communities who’ve lost members to suicide. They’ve also enlisted the help of the Canadian Rangers a military reserve unit that works in remote regions. The Rangers, alongside volunteers, provide a 24 hour watch to try to locate people in distress. But according to First Nation officials, the support they have received from provincial and federal authorities isn’t enough.
“It’s always a very short-term solution, responding to the deaths,” said Deputy Grand Chief Anna Achneepineskum. What is required, she said, is a long-term vision to get at the root problems of the suicide crisis.
Funds for short-term relief are in short supply, Achneepineskum said. She added that promises to provide $380,000 to provide another beleaguered community in Nishnawbe Aski Nation – Wapekeka – with additional mental health workers after the suicides of two 12-year-old girls last January still haven’t materialized.
“And here we are, in July, and we still haven’t received that commitment yet,” she said.
Health Canada said Saturday in an email that close to $1 million has been spent on providing health services to Wapekeka. On top of that, the community received $380,000 last May to fund four youth mental health workers. It will receive $380,000 annually to pay for them until March of 2019.
Even short-term responses haven’t been enough. Support teams for these communities have been stretched thin, Achneepineskum said – thin enough to ask for help from as far west as Alberta following the suicide in Nibinamik last Tuesday. Last week, Fiddler said, supervisors with the Canadian Rangers told him that their units may only be kept on until next Friday, depending on how the crisis plays out.
The Canadian Rangers also told him that in Wapekeka, youth are forming patrols of their own to try to help people in crisis.
“Children should not have to do that,” he said. “They should be able to enjoy their childhood and just be kids.
Achneepineskum hopes the most recent deaths will spur the federal and provincial governments to send more aid. In the meantime, she said, she and other Nishnawbe Aski Nation officials are continuing to support their community however they can.
“Every time we lose a child, we always say – you know what? We can’t lose any more,” she said.