As Canada’s small community of Attawapiskat grapples with more than 100 recent suicide attempts, focus turns ‘hundreds of years of trauma’
For two days, Stephanie Hookimaw drove frantically down the dirt roads that line Canada’s Attawapiskat First Nation, looking for her 13-year-old daughter.
She stopped in at 16 homes in the remote community, hoping to find some trace of her child. “I was just crying while I was driving around looking for her, praying at the same time, asking God to protect her.”
Her search ended at a police cordon. “She took her own life,” Hookimaw said, her voice shaking as her eyes welled with tears. “I was shocked. She was never suicidal.”
Her daughter, Sheridan, had been suffering. She was bullied at school and suffered health issues including arthritis and asthma. She longed for her family to have their own home, ever since sewage contamination forced them to live with 15 others in a three-bedroom home.
Still, she seemed happy. “I would always talk to my baby, asking her ‘are you OK?’ She would say ‘Mommy, I’m OK.’”
Her daughter’s problems were closely to tied to those of this remote Aboriginal community in northern Ontario. In 2011, a severe housing shortage forced families to live in tents and unheated trailers, some without access to running water and electricity. Two years later, substandard infrastructure was blamed for flooding and sewage backups.
In September, Sheridan’s cousin was one of five teenagers who tried to overdose on drugs and had to be medically evacuated from the community. The incident – coupled with Sheridan’s death in October – set off a disastrous chain of events in the fragile community, eventually triggering a crisis that this week made headlines around the world.
Since autumn there have been more than 100 suicide attempts in Attawapiskat, which has a population of just 2,000. The community’s four health workers struggled to keep up, their efforts beset by a lack of training in mental health issues.
The youngest person to attempt suicide was 11 years old, the oldest 71.
After 11 people tried to take their own lives on Saturday evening, exhausted leaders declared a state of emergency. On Monday, as officials scrambled to send crisis counsellors to the community, 20 people – including a nine-year-old – were taken to hospital after they were overheard making a suicide pact.
“We’re crying out for help,” said Attawapiskat chief Bruce Shisheesh. “Just about every night there is a suicide attempt.”
First Nations suicide emergency: a symptom of Canada's systemic neglect
The crisis has turned a spotlight on an issue too often ignored in Canada. Across the country, suicides and self-inflicted injuries rank as the leading cause of death for First Nations people younger than 44. For First Nations youth, statistics are even more bleak: suicide rates for young First Nation males are 10 times higher than for non-indigenous male youths. For young First Nations women, the suicide rate climbs to a staggering 21 times that of their non-indigenous counterparts.
There is no single reason for the toll. In Attawapiskat, Shisheesh pointed to overcrowded houses riddled with mould, drug abuse and the lack of a recreation centre that could give youth something to do. But mostly, he said, these children have fallen victim to the deeply rooted systemic issues facing Canada’s First Nations.
Chief among those is the lingering impact of the country’s residential school system, where for decades, more than 150,000 Aboriginal children were carted off in an attempt to forcibly assimilate them into Canadian society.
“You can’t attempt cultural genocide for 140 years, for seven generations – the last of these schools closing their doors in 1996 – and not expect some very real fallout from that,” author Joseph Boyden wrote this week in Maclean’s. “Attawapiskat is a brutal example.”
Canada confronts its dark history of abuse in residential schools
Rife with abuse, the schools aimed to “kill the Indian in the child”, as documented by a recent truth commission. Thousands of children died at these schools – the absence of dietary standards in the schools left many undernourished and vulnerable to diseases such as smallpox, measles and tuberculosis – with hundreds of them hastily buried in unmarked graves next to the institutions. In nearly a third of the deaths, the government and schools did not even record the names of the students who had died.
The legacy of these schools sits silently under the surface of much of First Nations life in Canada, often combining with deplorable living conditions to produce deadly results. Last month, after six suicides in some three months and more than 140 attempts in a two-week span, another remote community – the Pimicikamak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba – also declared a state of emergency.
Like Attawapiskat, a housing shortage in Pimicikamak has forced residents to crowd more than a dozen people into dilapidated houses to brave temperatures that drop as low as -40C in winter.
Across the country, more than 100 First Nations communities live in what leaders call “third-world conditions”, lacking proper housing, running water or electricity.
In a country that is home to 20% of the world’s freshwater, nearly 90 First Nations are advised to boil their drinking water, including one northern Ontario community that has been waiting for more than 20 years for potable water to flow from faucets.
The recent string of crises has provoked some in Canada to revive the debate as to whether First Nations people in remote communities should be encouraged to move to more urban areas of the country. This week, Jean Chrétien, Canada’s former prime minister, bluntly stated this week that when faced with a lack of economic opportunities, “people have to move sometimes”.
Boyden, who once lived in the area around Attawapiskat and continues to visit regularly, bristled at the idea. “It’s the most absurd, simplistic and colonial attitude,” he said. “You don’t take a person away from the last thing they have in order to make them better somehow.”
In the case of Attawapiskat, the debate’s tone is one of cruel irony, given that the land is home to a diamond mine. “These people in Attawapiskat are watching the resources of their community, of their territory, of their traditional land, being taken away by corporations,” said Boyden. “They watch this happen as they live in third-world conditions.”
While some First Nations communities in Canada do tremendously well, others rank among the most traumatised people in the world, said Gabor Maté, a retired physician who specialises in addiction and childhood development. “Because of the chronicity of the trauma, there’s never any recovery period. So they’ve been traumatised now for hundreds of years.”
Few in Canada acknowledge this trauma – creating a sort of cultural blindness that reverberates through Canadian institutions and their relationship with First Nations peoples. “There’s an official narrative of this country as democratic and one of the best places in the world to live. That would be severely challenged if we actually talked about the conditions of natives in their communities.”
The crisis in Attawapiskat came to light amid an ongoing campaign to abolish the Indian Act, a document that marked 140 years of existence this week and which puts the Canadian government in control of most aspects of First Nation life.
“The suicide crisis in Attawapiskat – and far too many other ongoing crises across the country – are rooted in the poverty and despair that was created by the Indian Act,” said Ontario regional chief Isadore Day, one of the many who are calling for the Indian Act to be replaced with indigenous self-government and self-determination. “Our peoples signed treaties with the intent to share the lands and resources equally with the new Canadians. We did not expect to be exiled to reserves.”
In the late 1940s, South African officials visited Canada to study the system of reserves and residential schools, taking home elements that were incorporated into apartheid. “The Indian act is Canada’s apartheid,” said Day.
The act has helped create a Canada where indigenous people – despite accounting for about 4% of the population – make up more than half of the children in the child welfare system, nearly a quarter of inmates in federal prisons and a disproportionately high number of women who are missing or murdered.
“We need to create a new reality where we’re sitting there with other governments and where we are recognised as such,” said Day, noting that change can’t come soon enough.
It’s a sentiment echoed in Attawapiskat, where so many have opted to try and take their own lives rather than face the future. While the state of emergency brought more than a dozen support workers into the community, said Shisheesh, and yielded promises of long-term funding from the provincial government, he couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to his community once the attention dies down and officials seek to tackle some other crisis elsewhere. “What’s going to take place after 30 days?”
The answer worries him. Attawapiskat cannot afford to have any more suicide attempts. “Our future is dying,” he said simply. “I don’t want to lose our future.”
In Canada, 24-hour suicide prevention centres can be found across the country through the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. Hotlines in other countries can be found here.
First Nations community grappling with suicide crisis: 'We're crying out for help' (1)