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State of emergency in Neskantaga

Two suicides in less than a week prompts the chief of a remote First Nations community to declare a state of emergency.

Last Modified: 25 Apr 2013 12:23
Deborah Esch

Deborah Esch is a professor of literature at the University of Toronto. Her books include The Brevity of Life: What AIDS Makes Legible; and In the Event: Reading Journalism, Reading Theory. She currently serves on the steering committee of Advox and is an author with Global Voices Online.
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Canada Prime Minister Stephen Harper projects an image of Canada as the best country in the world [AP]

To what extent can a crisis - one that is recognised and acknowledged as such - make a certain history newly legible to its witnesses? A small First Nations community situated in Ontario's far north may be a reluctant test case. In Neskantaga, with a population of just over 400, a catastrophic series of suicides over the past year - most recently, two in less than a week - has prompted Chief Peter Moonias to declare a state of emergency in an effort to obtain relief and support for his devastated people.

The declaration came on April 17, one day after the suicide of a 19-year-old from the community who was living in Thunder Bay; word of his death came a few minutes after band members had buried another individual in his 30s who died under similar circumstances the preceding week.  These events came just months after another young man took his own life in December, a circumstance that prompted the community to put its young people on suicide watch in an attempt to prevent further deaths. In the past year alone, Neskantaga has suffered seven sudden deaths and 20 suicide attempts.

"We have reached a breaking point and our community is under crisis," declared Neskantaga First Nation Councillor Roy Moonias. "Our community is exhausted emotionally and physically as we try to pick up the pieces from these tragic events."

In a press release issued on April 17, the community called on "all levels of government, health providers, the justice community, social service agencies and families" to support its members in their collective state of emergency.

"There are no treatments here, and more and more young people are taking their lives," stressed Councillor Moonias.

"This is unacceptable and something must change. We are getting frustrated and concerned for our young people and the entire community that Health Canada has not stepped up to ensure we have adequate resourcing available to deal with and prevent such crippling incidents from taking place."

Inadequate resources  

Neskantaga First Nation is a remote fly-in community of Oji-Cree located approximately 450 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, Ontario. Youth comprise over 75 percent of the population.  Currently, the community faces enormous challenges, including a high rate of prescription drug abuse (approximately 50 percent, according to a recent health report), domestic violence and other legacy issues of the residential school system, a lack of potable water (Neskantaga has long been under a boil-water advisory), land pollution, inadequate policing services and virtually no access to much-needed mental health and addictions treatment and counselling. 

As the community seeks to meet immediate needs and to forge a long-term healing strategy in the face of inadequate resourcing from federal and provincial governments, mounting social and environmental pressures related to a burgeoning mining development known as the Ring of Fireare compounding the difficulties. 

We have reached a breaking point and our community is under crisis.

Roy Moonias, First Nation Councillor

"Isolated communities are small and tight knit - grieving as a result of these traumatic losses will be prolonged for years to come and [is] complicated by many factors unique to First Nations," wrote Assembly of First Nations Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy in an AFN statement of support.

Alvin Fiddler, Deputy Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents First Nations communities across northern Ontario, put the Neskantaga state of emergency in context in a telephone interview conducted on April 22. Local leadership, he explained, is "trying to deal with social challenges in the community and to address growing pressures from outside".

To meet immediate needs, they are "looking for grief counsellors, mental health care for children and family members. They have lost seven or eight members in the past year. That's a lot for a community of that size to endure. They need trauma units to come in. There are also basic needs in terms of infrastructure - for example, clean drinking water". 

Under these circumstances, the enticing prospect of employment and opportunity proffered by mining companies and the Ontario government in their promotion of the Ring of Fire seems remote, if not moot.

Fiddler went on to frame the current crisis in terms of Canada's vexed history of relations with its aboriginal peoples, "What's happening in Neskantaga didn't happen overnight. You have to go back to the Indian Act, to people being rounded up on their own land."

"There's a lot of history that Canada needs to acknowledge - for example, residential schools. The Prime Minister's apology in June 2008 - you have to wonder, how sincere was he? The government [of Conservative PM Stephen Harper] is refusing to hand over all the records to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Victims and families have to take the commission to court to get these records."

'Fear of death'

Asked in a separate telephone interview on the same date to situate his community's state of emergency for an international readership, Neskantaga Chief Peter Moonias paused before responding. "Sometimes, as a native person with full status as a Canadian citizen, I feel like a refugee from a different country, the way I'm treated. The reserve feels like a refugee camp. People are not treated as first-class citizens. [In the wake of so many suicides] people are living in fear of death."

In the Chief's estimation, it would take $1-2 million in government support to ameliorate the immediate crisis by helping to develop capacity at the community level. But efforts to obtain the necessary resources have "hit a wall". To date, he said, responses from both levels of government have been almost entirely limited to the reiteration of past promises.

Neskantaga leadership, he noted, is "considering calling a second state of emergency. In a community of around 400, there are 200 youth related to suicide victims. The community is in a precarious state; people are walking on eggshells, you know?"

Chief Moonias observed that, both domestically and internationally, "Prime Minister Harper projects an image of Canada as the best country in the world. But that best country doesn't extend beyond the nation's system of highways to include remote communities in the far north of Ontario and other provinces and territories."

Thus far, he summed up, "government has been intractable. We are treaty partners, sharing our ancestral lands. Sometimes I wonder… without a treaty, what would they do? Would they just kill us?"

Deborah Esch is a professor of literature at the University of Toronto. Her books include The Brevity of Life: What AIDS Makes Legible; and In the Event: Reading Journalism, Reading Theory. She currently serves on the steering committee of Advox and is an author with Global Voices Online.

Follow her on Twitter: @bsovereign

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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