Attawapiskat First Nation declares state of emergency

Numerous suicides in the area in the last week sparked fear of an epidemic in the community

The remains of a Canadian flag can be seen flying over a building in Attawapiskat, Ont. on November 29, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

The remains of a Canadian flag can be seen flying over a building in Attawapiskat, Ont. on November 29, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

ATTAWAPISKAT, Ont. — The federal and Ontario governments are moving to help a remote First Nation that has declared a state of emergency due to a rising number of suicide attempts among its young people.

A crisis team, including mental health nurses and social workers, is being flown immediately by federal and provincial health ministries to the James Bay community of about 2,000.

But the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations says long-term support for the community is needed in addition to immediate action.

Perry Bellegarde says Attawapiskat represents a national tragedy and that the situation is too common in indigenous communities.

“We need a sustained commitment to address long-standing issues that lead to hopelessness among our peoples, particularly the youth,” Bellegarde said in a release Monday.

He noted that Pimicikamak Cree Nation in Manitoba declared a state of emergency last month in response to youth suicide.

Attawapiskat resident Jackie Hookimaw says the suicide epidemic started last fall, when a number of people tried to kill themselves.

Hookimaw, whose 13-year-old great niece took her own life in October, says the community doesn’t have the resources to deal with the crisis.

That sentiment was echoed by the local MP, New Democrat Charlie Angus, who said northern communities aren’t given the resources they need to deal with complicated grief.

Angus said it has been a “rolling nightmare” of more and more suicide attempts among young people throughout the winter.

He said the community didn’t think it could get any worse than it was in March, but April brought even more suicide attempts.

On Twitter, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the news from Attawapiskat “heartbreaking.”

From the archives: How the Pikangikum reserve became the suicide capital of the world

Here are some other instances when the first nation has declared a state of emergency in the last decade:

2013: Flooding and sewer backups triggered a state of emergency in Attawapiskat in the spring of 2013. Heavy snowfall followed by a quick melt overwhelmed what the area MP called “sub-standard infrastructure” on the reserve. The rising sewage forced the evacuation of the only hospital in the community and patients had to be moved to facilities off-reserve. The school was also closed.

2011: Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency in October 2011 after a severe housing shortage forced a number of families to live in tents and unheated trailers, some without access to running water and electricity. The declaration set off lingering tensions between the first nation and the federal government, with the then ruling Conservatives questioning why the housing crisis existed given the millions provided to Attawapiskat over the years.

2009: A state of emergency was declared in July 2011 after a number of homes were contaminated by sewage. The deputy chief at the time said a lack of housing and overcrowding in the community compounded the problem. Fifty two people, some as old as 72 and others as young as four months, were affected.

2006: Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency in October 2006 over the deteriorating quality of drinking water that it said was affecting the health of children and elders on the reserve. Some residents complained of rashes, dizziness and a change in the taste of the drinking water.

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