The federal government says it is doing everything it immediately can to help a northern Manitoba reserve struggling with a suicide crisis.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Health Minister Jane Philpott say the issue goes beyond the Pimicikamak Cree Nation, known as Cross Lake, and they are determined to address the underlying reasons why so many indigenous people are taking their own lives.
Six people have committed suicide in the last two months on the Cross Lake reserve, about 500 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Another 140 have attempted or threatened to kill themselves in the last two weeks. The band says about 100 children are on a suicide watch list.
The band council has declared a state of emergency.
“Cross Lake is not alone,” Bennett said in Ottawa on Thursday. “This is happening coast to coast to coast and we need to stop it. That means showing that we’ve got … mental-health immediate supports, but then going forward … they know that we will listen and do what they know they need.”
The reserve is asking for at least six mental-health workers and round-the-clock counsellors in the short term. With 80 per cent of people out of work, the band council is also calling for job opportunities, a hospital and youth recreational facilities.
Bennett said Ottawa will start addressing the soaring numbers of indigenous children in care, poor housing on reserves and lack of recreation that is driving much of the despair.
“There are more kids in care than at the height of residential schools. This has to stop,” Bennett said.
Philpott said Ottawa has boosted the number of health professionals available to Cross Lake and is looking at bolstering support for kids when they are out of school for March break with few activities on offer.
“Young people … are facing such loss of hope in their lives and also really kind of an abandonment and a sense that there’s really nothing to do,” she said.
Shirley Robinson, Cross Lake’s acting chief, said the community has been overwhelmed by calls from across North America since the crisis was declared Wednesday. Church groups, counsellors and concerned citizens have been offering support, she said.
Robinson said the reserve is just trying to hold on until aid arrives. The nursing station is staffed by just two people overnight, when most of the calls for help come through.
Robinson, whose cousin was the latest person to commit suicide, is spending much of her time looking for warning signs from other young people on social media.
“These people are too young to take their lives. We need to do something now.”
Band councillor Donnie McKay said help was needed weeks ago, but the province wanted a request in a formal letter.
“They know this is happening,” he asked. “Why wait for a letter when there is a life-and-death situation here?”
Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger said he was meeting with Cross Lake officials Thursday to decide what the province can do. Health professionals are ready to go into the community for up to two months when the reserve is ready, he said.
“We will work with the community to get to the bottom of their concerns on this,” he said.
The premier said the province will work with the reserve to improve education and job opportunities.
The community has had a troubled history. Cross Lake was the site of an Indian residential school that closed in 1969 and sits in the shadow of a Manitoba Hydro generating station.
Selinger personally apologized to residents a year ago for the damage the station has caused to Cross Lake’s traditional land, way of life and cultural identity.