- Staff | The Globe and Mail, July 18, 2017
Two young girls took their own lives in Pikangikum this weekend, bringing to four the number of adolescents who killed themselves on the remote Ontario fly-in reserve in the past two weeks – another spate of such deaths in a community that has one of the highest rates of suicide in the world.
The girls who died this past weekend were in their mid-teens.
Two weeks ago, a 12-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl died by suicide. One of the girls who died on the weekend was a sister of the girl who died by suicide earlier this month.
The 49 communities within the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) in Northwestern Ontario have grappled with the problem for decades. But halfway through this year, with the publicly known toll surpassing 20, there have already been more suicides in NAN territory than there were in any of the previous five years. More than half of the dead are between the ages of 10 and 15.
“We’re making every effort to prevent another life from being taken,” Dean Owen, the chief of Pikangikum, said on Monday as the First Nation of about 2,800 people waited for the girls’ bodies to be returned to their families following autopsies.
“The community is still very much in shock,” Mr. Owen said. But, he said, he and the other community leaders are at a loss for what they can do about the crisis.
As for the federal government, which funds First Nations’ health care, Mr. Owen said: “I would like to say, get a professional to come in and find out what’s going on in the minds of these young people.”
Pikangikum is no stranger to suicide epidemics. In 2000, after many deaths throughout the 1990s, one British sociologist said it likely had the highest suicide rate in the world. Between 2006 and 2008, 16 of its young people took their own lives. There was another string of deaths in 2011.
Suicide happens with alarming frequency through the reserves of Northwestern Ontario, but this year has been particularly difficult. The Wapekeka First Nation alone, with a population of about 400, has lost three 12-year-old girls. On Saturday, the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation buried a youth who killed himself in Thunder Bay.
Anna Betty Achneepineskum, the deputy grand chief of NAN, said she has been trying to look at the lives of the young people who have killed themselves in her communities recently to determine if there are commonalities that can be addressed. “But we’re always responding to crises, and all of the resources that we have are all committed to that part of it, so we really don’t have the resources to develop some proactive and prevention measures,” Ms. Achneepineskum said.
When a child takes their life in a NAN First Nation, the community makes an effort to identify other children who are at risk and to take care of their immediate needs. That often means sending them to a city such as Thunder Bay, Sioux Lookout or Ottawa for counselling. But that is a “very quick, Band-Aid solution” and there is little ability to do long-term followup because the resources are so stretched, Ms. Achneepineskum said. “We’re talking about youth here. We’re talking about youth that continue to die.”
Health Canada has sent additional supports to the affected communities and to the region at large, and is bolstering mental-health teams that serve NAN reserves. Jane Philpott, the federal Health Minister, said the suicides are an “unspeakable tragedy” and her department and others are working on the issue on an urgent daily basis.
“There is no question that this has to be addressed on a wide range of levels,” Dr. Philpott said. “We absolutely have to get to the root causes of why communities have lost hope and why there is this cycle of despair and continued [decisions by] people to act on their suicidal thoughts and not be able to see hope for their future.”
In fact, many of the root causes of the suicides are known, such as poverty, poor education, substance abuse and the loss of culture, something Dr. Philpott acknowledges.
“It is really a result of what we have tolerated as Canadians for generations now of discrimination, including things like, of course, residential schools, that have led to cycles of domestic violence that have taken root on some communities,” she said. “We need to acknowledge that we have done wrong by the First Peoples of Canada and we need to start to address that.”