WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Canada’s parliament will meet in an emergency session on Tuesday night over a rash of suicide attempts by aboriginal teenagers in a remote, poverty-stricken community whose people feel isolated from the rest of the world.
Over the past weekend alone, 11 people of the Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario tried to kill themselves, prompting Chief Bruce Shisheesh to declare a state of emergency, then a second group was brought to hospital Monday night after suicide attempts.
They follow 28 attempted suicides in March, some of them adults, health officials said. Children as young as 11 years old were among those who attempted suicide during the past few days and police began 24-hour patrols in response to the crisis.
The reasons for people trying to end their lives are varied but Attawapiskat leaders point to an underlying despondency and pessimism among their people as well as an increasing number of prescription drug overdoses since December.
Living in isolated communities with chronic unemployment and crowded housing, some young aboriginals lack clean water but have easy Internet access, giving them a glimpse of affluence in the rest of Canada. Attawapiskat, 966 km (600 miles) north of Ottawa on James Bay, is only accessible by plane or winter ice road.
“We feel isolated — we don’t feel part of the rest of the world,” said Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, who represents 30 aboriginal communities. “The basic needs are astronomical.”
Canada’s 1.4 million aboriginals, who make up about four percent of the population, have a lower life expectancy than other Canadians and are more often victims of violent crime. The problems plaguing aboriginals gained prominence in January when a gunman killed four people in La Loche, Saskatchewan. An aboriginal teenager was charged in the shootings.
The emergency parliamentary session was requested by New Democrat legislator Charlie Angus whose constituency includes Attawapiskat. Angus wants Ottawa do more “to end this cycle of crisis and death among young people.”
Another Canadian aboriginal community in the western province of Manitoba reported six suicides in two months and 140 suicide attempts in two weeks in an appeal for federal aid last month.
Health officials said seven young people overdosed together in Attawapiskat on Saturday.
“An individual attempt at suicide is bad enough itself, but if there seems to be a group thing, it’s even more cause for alarm,” said National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations, Canada’s main aboriginal political group.
Attawapiskat, which has 2,000 people and is near a diamond mine, the state of emergency was the fifth since 2006. It has previously sounded the alarm over flooding and raw sewage issues, poor drinking water and a housing crisis.
The federal government and other local authorities have sent 18 additional workers, including counselors, mental health workers and police, for an undetermined time, said Keith Conn, an assistant deputy minister in the Canadian health department. Four healthcare workers who were already in Attawapiskat have been moved out temporarily to rest.
In 2011, the United Nations special rapporteur for indigenous people said he was “deeply concerned” about living conditions in the Attawapiskat First Nation, which means people of the parting rocks.
Resident Jackie Hookimaw-Witt, whose teenage niece committed suicide last autumn, said it was the third attempt for one 13-year-old girl who survived on Saturday. She said the girl had been challenged to kill herself on social media.
In Cross Lake, Manitoba, dozens of people, many of them youths, have attempted suicide this year, said community health director Helga Hamilton. In some cases, teenagers talked about group suicide before attempting to kill themselves separately.
“There were never suicide pacts before in the last 30 years that I’m aware of,” Hamilton said.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who called this weekend’s suicide attempts “heartbreaking”, took power last year promising to tackle high levels of poverty, shoddy housing and poor health among aboriginal residents and promised a new “nation-to-nation relationship.”
Health Minister Jane Philpott told reporters that there are “huge gaps” in mental health services for aboriginal communities, and the government would work to address them.
“It is completely unacceptable in a country as rich in resources as Canada that young people should get to the point that their life seems worthless and that they would want to end it,” she said in parliament.
Last month, Canada said it would spend an extra C$8.37 billion over five years to help the aboriginal population deal with dire living conditions.