The Pimicikamak Cree Nation in Manitoba, also known as Cross Lake, declared a state of emergency on March 9, in the wake of six suicides over the past two months and over 140 attempts in the community of 8,365 in the last two weeks alone. Previous requests for provincial and federal aid have been met with inadequate assistance; last month, a meeting with Manitoba’s Minister of Health resulted in one mental health worker being sent to the community for a single eight-hour shift. The suicide crisis, however, cannot be resolved without considering the other hardships affecting Cross Lake, including the destruction of its land by a Manitoba Hydro station and a lack of economic security with an 80 per cent unemployment rate. In order to seriously confront Cross Lake’s suicide crisis, the government must, in consultation with the Nation, address the systemic roots of this crisis.
While the government has made some efforts since the state of emergency was declared, they are inadequate and overdue. Following the declaration of emergency, the community asked for at least six mental health workers, a child psychologist, a family therapist, counsellors, and physicians; the provincial government dispatched several federally funded emergency mental health workers and counsellors on a temporary basis. However, in a community where 170 students in a school of 1,200 are on a suicide-watch list, these reactive measures will not fulfill the Nation’s long-standing need for basic facilities, such as a hospital and recreational facilities for youth. The standard of only reacting to a marginalized community’s needs when it is in a state of emergency is grossly inadequate. The government should have been proactive in providing the requested resources before crisis status was reached. That it didn’t do so is evidence that the Canadian state continues a historical pattern of treating Indigenous people as expendable.
While not all Indigenous communities have comparable suicide rates, suicide continues to disproportionately affect Indigenous communities. According to Health Canada, First Nations youth die by suicide five to six times more often than non-Indigenous youth, and Inuit youth 11 times more often; suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading cause of death for First Nations youth and adults up to 44 years old. Many of those who have attempted or died by suicide have connections to the genocidal residential schooling system or the foster care system, which have both resulted in the loss of the identities and cultures of many Indigenous children. The root causes of the suicide epidemic at Cross Lake – which include poverty, overcrowded housing, and intergenerational trauma and abuse – stem from the past and ongoing injustices of colonialism.
The government has a responsibility to address these structural causes. Instead of only reacting and apologizing when things reach a point of crisis, the government needs to provide substantive resources to fulfill Indigenous communities’ expressed needs, such as economic security, sustainable mental health facilities, and employment programs. As well, all settlers have a constant part to play in pushing the government to act – it should not take a state of emergency to get Canada to notice.
—The McGill Daily editorial board