Families on the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation are grieving after a string of suicides, including that of a 10-year-old girl on Thursday, that has triggered band councillors to declare a state of crisis.
The community, located in northwest Saskatchewan about, says it has recorded seven suicides since 2016. Leaders in the community are calling on the federal and provincial government to invest in suicide prevention and supports.
“We need more of our therapists and our frontline workers, they need support. We don’t have enough of them,” said Chief Ronald Mitsuing.
Mitsuing said he was at the home of the 10-year-old who took her life, with the mourning family, until 2:30 a.m. Friday.
“They were taking it pretty hard,” he said.
Mitsuing said he had met with community elders on Friday. He said the deaths have been hard for them, as they have been called on to support the families. Some of them performed a smudge ceremony over the ten-year-old shortly after she took her life.
Mitsuige said community leaders and elders are working to develop a plan, “that will be on Makwa Sahgaiehcan for a long-term to help our people deal with these thoughts of suicide.”
He said the provincial and federal governments need to listen toFirst Nation communities about they problems they’re facing.
“It’s serious. It’s very serious. We’re losing lives,” he said, noting his family has been affected by two suicides this year alone.
“They didn’t even get over one and there’s already another one,” he said. “It’s like there’s a black cloud hanging over the reserve and it’s not going to go away unless we find a way to get rid of it.”
The first of the seven suicides since 2016 was a 13-year-old girl on Oct. 25, 2016. A 17-year-old boy died in 2017 and a 14-year-old girl in 2018.
This year, a 17-year-old girl took her life in July. Then a 14-year-old girl on Nov. 2. Then, on Nov. 11, a man who was related to one of those teens took his own life. He was laid to rest last week.
Mitsuing said the issues in the community include an overcrowded school and not enough facilities for youth in the area. He said this weekend, the community hall and school will be open late to ensure youth have a place to go.
A statement from Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) said the ministry is working closely with the First Nation and provincial leaders in Saskatchewan to “ensure the community receives the mental health and crisis supports required.”
Band officials said that ISC Minister Marc Miller has reached out to the community to offer condolences, but that they’re still waiting to hear from staff to see if the ministry will respond to its request for more supports.
The ISC statement also noted the department had reached out to the Meadow Lake Tribal Council, who provides primary and mental health services to the community.
“Together they will be assessing additional mental wellness supports required, and mobilizing as necessary,” the statement explained.
It also noted that the Meadow Lake Tribal Council has three therapists and other youth supports available to the community and that two additional counsellors from the education department will also be dispatched to the community.
The ISC said it will “continue to work closely” with the tribal council and Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) to ensure “communities can put in place the necessary suicide prevention supports.”
“This loss of life is preventable and ISC is committed to working with the community to address the immediate and long-term mental health issues facing the community,” the statement said.
The FSIN and the Saskatchewan Health Authority did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
This isn’t the first time a First Nation has declared an emergency as a result of teen suicides.
In Ontario, the Attawapiskat First Nation on the remote James Bay, declared a state of emergency after dozens of teens attempted to take their own lives in 2016.
In 2017, the Wapekeka First Nation, also in Ontario, declared a state of emergency after almost 40 young people from the community were considered to be at risk of suicide, representing 10 per cent of the northern community.
Then, earlier this year, a First Nation in Manitoba declared a state of emergency as God’s Lake First Nation saw four young people take their own lives with many others attempting suicide.
In 2016, the Lac La Ronge Indian Band experienced a rash of youth suicides that rocked Stanley Mission, La Ronge and their surrounding communities. In this situation, at least four youth committed suicide over the course of a month in October 2016, a situation declared a “state of crisis.”
Saskatchewan’s Advocate for Children and Youth Lisa Broda said youth suicide in Saskatchewan’s north has been an ongoing issue.
She said there has been a lot of discussion about how to prevent it — such as a report her office released in 2017 following the 2016 suicides three years earlier — but that now there has to be movement on those discussion.
“The paths have been laid and it’s really just time for action,” she said. “We know what to do and really it’s that they need more access and more service in the communities so the kids don’t have to come south.”
Officials from the First Nation said Warren Kaeding, Saskatchewan’s Minister Responsible for Rural and Remote Health, has also reached out to the community and said he’ll be working with the Saskatchewan Health Authority to ensure adequate supports are in place.
The Government of Saskatchewan is expected to issue a statement about the State of Emergency Friday.
If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, there is help out there.
For an emergency or crisis situation, call 911.
You can also contact the Saskatchewan suicide prevention line toll-free, 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566, the Regina Mobile Crisis Services suicide line at 306-525-5333 or Saskatoon mobile crisis line at 306-933-6200.