In Attawapiskat, Ontario, a First Nations reserve of about 2,000 people, neither the old nor the young seem to believe in what tomorrow might bring. Here, 11 is the youngest age of someone recently attempting suicide; 71 the oldest.
To say that Attawapiskat is remote is an understatement. Lying between a national polar bear park and a bird sanctuary, the community is 88 kilometres away from the nearest settlement, another small First Nations reserve. There is one 15-bed hospital – staffed by doctors four days out of seven and run by nurses the rest of the time – one secondary school and one elementary school, built two years ago.
Since autumn 2015, more than 100 attempted suicides have been recorded here; 28 in March alone. So far, there has been only one confirmed victim: Stephanie Hookimaw, a 13-year-old girl who died by hanging.
On 9 April, community Chief Bruce Shisheesh called for a state of emergency, prompted by the mounting suicide-attempt rate. On 10 April, 11 more attempts were reported, seven of which involved children aged between 9 and 14 who were rumoured to have made a ‘suicide pact’.
In some ways, this is not surprising: suicide rates among First Nations youth are up to seven times higher than for non-Aboriginal youth. The driving force behind this is poverty, coupled with decades of discriminatory practices against First Nations communities. Attawapiskat’s development has been stunted, to the point that in 2011 another state of emergency was declared due to a ‘severe housing shortage’.
Most of all, an abusive residential school system dating back to 1876 and targeting First Nations children has left its mark, with more than 150,000 indigenous children being removed from their families and forcibly ‘assimilated’ into Canadian society. The last of these schools may have closed in 1996, but the consequences are still felt today. There is a direct link between the decades of systemic abuse of multiple generations and current social problems in indigenous communities often plagued by alcoholism, unemployment and domestic violence.
While this latest state of emergency has received significant attention, this is the sixth time Attawapiskat has requested emergency action since 2006. For now, $2 million has been promised in short-term aid and a 13-strong team of mental-health workers, nurses and security personnel has been deployed.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also thrown his full support behind reconciliation processes between the government and First Nation communities. The question is, will it really make a difference to the next 11-year-old who might be contemplating suicide?