Advocates call for province-wide action on indigenous youth suicide rates


Residents of Pimicikamak Cree Nation (Cross Lake) are in crisis. Their youths are dying by suicide at an alarming rate, and the community is desperate.

After the death of six people by suicide since Dec. 12 and as many as 18 attempts in just over three months, Shirley Robinson, acting chief of the Northern Manitoba community, declared a state of emergency and formally requested Health Canada send a crisis team.

“They had one mental health worker for 8,300 people,” said Ainsley Krone, communications manager for the office of the Children’s Advocate. “There are unbelievable levels of underfunding throughout Northern Manitoba.”

Suicide among indigenous youths is not a reserve-only problem. Krone said suicides occur when youths leave their communities, as well.

“Young people might die by suicide when they are taken out of their community, but the issues started in the community with lack of access to proper mental health care services,” Krone said. “Where they’re dying isn’t representative of the issues.”

Sherry Gott, a wellness counsellor with RRC’s aboriginal student support centre, said she sees students dealing with suicidal thoughts often.

“It’s always there on the surface. To them it seems to be the answer, a way out,” Gott said. “It’s like they are swimming and drowning. We need to extend a lifeline out to students.”

Students can feel isolated being away from home or are sometimes coping with the history of a suicide in their family, said Gott.

“Some are still impacted because of their life history,” Gott said. “We work with them, validating their past history and give them strategies to deal with thoughts of suicide. We look at hope, what their goals are. we create a network for them.”

As a show of solidarity to indigenous students at RRC, the elders dedicated the annual Pipe Ceremony and Spring Feast on March 17 to the Pimicikamak Cree Nation community.

“We wanted to help our students see we do care about the communities they come from. We aren’t ignoring it,” Gott said.

Having this kind of support, in addition to access to recreational programs, is what the Pimicikamak Cree Nation is in dire need of.

The Manitoba children’s advocate Darlene MacDonald released a statement regarding the state of emergency called by the leaders of Pimicikamak Cree Nation, urging the federal minister for indigenous affairs, Carolyn Bennett, to find solutions to prevent suicide deaths.

“If our indigenous youth are feeling so much despair that they are dying by suicide, the loss of these youth is a tragedy that must be included in the scope of national dialogue if we are to truly walk a path of reconciliation,” MacDonald said in the statement.

“We need to ensure that youth have real opportunities to feel joy and experience hope in their home communities… access to support services and making solid investments in recreation are some of the solutions we know that can work to prevent suicide deaths.”

MacDonald isn’t alone in calling for help. Churchill-Keewatinook Aski MP Niki Ashton also raised the issue of what she called a “suicide epidemic” during question period on March 7.

“This is the face of crushing poverty and growing inequality in Canada,” Ashton told Parliament. “That’s why First Nations are asking for support in terms of education, recreation, and jobs.”

Krone said the reasons why young people are dying by suicide are the same social situations that affect missing and murdered indigenous women, and should definitely be included in the inquiry.

“Legacies of residential schools and colonialism…crushing levels of poverty, inadequate housing, these are some of the root causes,” Krone said. “A house that can only hold four people sometimes has an entire extended family up to 20 people living in it. There is no level of autonomy or privacy,” she added.

So far, government officials seem to be responding. The province sent a mobile crisis unit to the community from Thompson, Manitoba.

But like so many societal issues, Krone said death by suicide is one problem caused by a much larger issue that also needs to be addressed.

“Poverty is a key driver,” Krone said. “If we could solve the poverty issue, a lot of youth would be safer.”