First Nations in Northern Manitoba are facing a suicide epidemic and the Federal government has pledged to do all it can to improve the situation. Pimicikamak Cree Nation has declared a state of emergency as it requests additional services to help prevent more losses within its population. In the past two months the Pimicikamak Cree Nation (Cross Lake), located 500 km north of Winnipeg, has in the past eight weeks suffered the loss of six people whilst over 100 others have threatened to take their own lives.
It has been a long colonial history of unhappiness for the Pimicikamak with such injustices as the flooding of lands, residential school nightmares, racism, inequality and poverty. Now it stands guard over the lives of 100 First Nation children for whom the depression, unemployment, poverty, hunger and inadequate housing are proving all too much.
"Cross Lake is not alone," declared Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett in Ottawa on March 10, 2016.
The federal government is looking for answers to the crisis and government ministers are hoping to precipitate a search for the underlying causes that must be addressed. At Cross Lake in Northern Manitoba, 140 people have attempted or threatened suicide in the past few days, and the Band has a suicide watch list of about 100 children, thus band council declares a state of emergency.
Bennett told media in the aftermath of the declaration of a state of emergency, “This is happening coast to coast to coast and we need to stop it." She says it means supplying mental-health supports to communities that are acutely aware of their own needs. Cross Lake is asking for six mental health workers and 24-hour-a-day counselling to start dealing with issues, such as 80 per cent unemployment, and a lack of infrastructure such as no hospital or youth recreational facilities, and missing employment opportunities. They are, Bennett says, among a great number of communities that need help reversing poor housing which is causing so much desperation. It is not untypical in Manitoba to find 2 bedroom houses containing 18 or more adults and children.
Bennett has promised the federal government will furthermore address the unacceptable numbers of First Nation and Aboriginal children in care. “There are more kids in care than at the height of residential schools. This has to stop.” Federal Minister of Health Jane Philpott weighed in to supply health professionals to help Cross Lake provide immediate support for kids going into the upcoming March break to alleviate the imminent threat of a suicide crisis.
“Young people … are facing such loss of hope in their lives and also really kind of an abandonment and a sense that there’s really nothing to do,” said the health minister.
The acting chief, Shirley Robinson, says church groups, counselors and concerned citizens are offering support in a crisis declared March 9, and Robinson describes a wait-and-see situation. Her own close family relations are dead by their own hand. She is trying to stem the awful flow by scanning social media for warning signs in the youth. “These people are too young to take their lives. We need to do something now.”
Other Band councilors in the community have described the struggle to end this terrible trend. The communities leaders have sent correspondence to Winnipeg but nothing is happening fast enough to stop the life-and-death situation becoming a strictly death situation.
Then-Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger was faced with deciding what the province could do. The Manitoba government says health personnel are prepared to go into the community for up to two months "when the reserve is ready," he said. “We will work with the community to get to the bottom of their concerns on this,” he added on the cusp of a provincial election that he lost. Selinger said he wanted to improve education and job opportunities working with the reserve. Cross Lake was once the location of an Indian residential school until 1969.
Then, community lost touch with traditional territory due to a Manitoba Hydro generating station that the former premier apologized about last year, as he was lamenting the station for damage caused to Cross Lake’s traditional land, way of life and cultural identity.