Toronto, Canada – A remote Indigenous community in Canada has declared a state of emergency after 11 residents tried to take their own lives in a single day over the weekend.
Local leaders in Attawapiskat First Nation, in northern Ontario, said on Monday that 11 people attempted to commit suicide on Saturday alone.
We recognise that there are serious and long-standing issues of mental health and addiction in some First Nations communities
“Attawapiskat has been waiting [for help] since [October],” Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh tweeted on Monday.
Shisheesh said a health crisis team, including mental health nurses and social workers, were being flown into Attawapiskat, an isolated community of about 2,000 residents on the banks of James Bay.
The community also witnessed 26 suicide attempts in March and 86 since September, resulting in at least one death, according to a spokeswoman for Canada’s health minister.
Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, the organisation representing First Nations peoples across Canada, called for a national strategy to address the high suicide rates countrywide.
He also requested more government investments to support First Nations communities.
“The situation in Attawapiskat is sadly felt by far too many First Nations across the country,” Bellegarde said in a statement on Monday. “We need a sustained commitment to address long-standing issues that lead to hopelessness among our peoples, particularly the youth.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the news out of Attawapiskat was “heartbreaking”.
The news from Attawapiskat is heartbreaking. We'll continue to work to improve living conditions for all Indigenous peoples.
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) April 10, 2016
Health Canada sent two mental health counsellors to Attawapiskat with a local crisis response unit, spokeswoman Maryse Durette told Al Jazeera on Monday morning.
“We recognise that there are serious and long-standing issues of mental health and addiction in some First Nations communities,” Durette said in an email.
Health Canada has spent $340,860 on mental health and wellness programmes and $9,750 on the National Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy in Attawapiskat, Durette said.
Since 2009, about 600 children and youth in First Nations communities west of James Bay have thought
about or tried to commit suicide, according to testimonies compiled by the local Mushkegowuk Council.
New Democratic Party critic for indigenous affairs and parliamentary member Charlie Angus called the situation a “national catastrophe”.
“If it was declared in any other community, it would have an immediate response,” Angus told The Canadian Press news agency. “I’ve lost count of the states of emergency in the James Bay region since I was elected.”
‘Volcano ready to erupt’
Last month, another First Nations community declared a state of emergency over a recent spike in suicides and suicide attempts.
Six people committed suicide in Pimicikamak Cree Nation (Cross Lake) in northern Manitoba over three month, and 140 others attempted suicide in two weeks alone.
“It was like a volcano ready to erupt, and we don’t know how to deal with that lava flowing down,” Cross Lake band councillor Donnie McKay told Al Jazeera last month.
Suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading causes of death among First Nations youths and adults under the age of 44, according to Canada’s Centre for Suicide Prevention.
Experts say that the high suicide rates are related to long-standing issues affecting First Nations, including widespread poverty, high unemployment rates, trauma from Canada’s residential school system, and systemic racism, among others.