Manitoba First Nation declares state of emergency over suicide epidemic

A remote Manitoba First Nation declared a state of emergency Wednesday after six suicides in the last two months and 140 attempts in the last two weeks alone.

CROSS LAKE, Man. — A remote Manitoba First Nation declared a state of emergency Wednesday after six suicides in the last two months and 140 attempts in the last two weeks alone.

Officials from the Pimicikamak Cree Nation, known as Cross Lake, say health workers on the northern reserve can no longer cope. Band councillor Donnie McKay said the nursing station is only staffed by two nurses overnight.

“They’re going 24 hours and they’re ready to drop.”

The community of 8,300 is traumatized and needs immediate help from the provincial and federal governments, McKay said. A meeting with Manitoba Health Minister Sharon Blady last month resulted in one mental-health worker being sent to the community for an eight-hour shift, he said.

“It’s ridiculous,” said McKay, who was called by distraught family members to a home a few days ago to talk a man out of taking his own life. “This wouldn’t happen anywhere else.”

Acting Chief Shirley Robinson said the reserve — about 500 kilometres north of Winnipeg near a Manitoba Hydro generating station — has an 80 per cent unemployment rate.

Frustrated residents occupied the generating station in 2013. They said their traditional lands are regularly transformed into a floodway and none of the promised economic development and employment programs has materialized.

Premier Greg Selinger personally apologized a year ago for the damage caused by the hydro development to Cross Lake’s traditional land, way of life and cultural identity.

After that apology, Robinson said there was a sense of hope, but that quickly vanished.

“There is lots of despair.”

Robinson’s 33-year-old cousin, a mother of three, was the sixth person last weekend alone to commit suicide. The community has been drawing on every resource it can to save lives, said Robinson.

“We’ve been using clergy. We’ve been using our local elders. We’ve been using our local nurses and doctors,” she said. “It’s been very difficult for everyone.”

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson said he has spoken with federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and the two levels of government are doing what they can to assist the community. The province is waiting for specific requests from Cross Lake and will assist in any way it can, he said.

But the root causes of suicide — poverty, overcrowded housing and past abuse — need to be addressed, he said.

“Once those things are dealt with, it gives a sense of pride back to the indigenous people of this province,” said the minister, who is expected to travel to Cross Lake in the next few days.

A spokesperson for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada said in an emailed statement the department is working with the band council and other front-line workers to “identify need and take immediate action in response.”

“Health Canada officials have reached out to the Chief of Cross Lake First Nation to offer assistance, and will work with the community to help address their mental-health needs in this difficult time,” Michelle Perron wrote.

The band is asking for at least six mental-health workers immediately, as well as for a child psychologist and family therapist. Council is also calling for after-hours counsellors and physicians.

In the long term, the reserve is asking for a hospital and recreational facilities for its youth.

Shirley Robinson said, with every minute that passes, people are worried about losing another loved one. There were two suicide attempts Tuesday, she said.

“It seems like we’re (keeping) a watchful eye — every minute, every hour. We don’t want this to happen anymore. The whole community is in grief.”

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