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Cowichan chief says sense of hopelessness leads to suicides

Cowichan council member Chuck Seymour pauses for a moment during a news conference in the Cowichan First Nation of Duncan, B.C. Monday, May 14, 2012.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Suicide is tearing apart one of the largest aboriginal nations in British Columbia, causing the chief and council to reach out for government help and issue a gut-wrenching plea to its young people to embrace life.

Cowichan Tribes Chief Harvey Alphonse said Monday many young people have lost their will to live and it's spawned a disturbing spike in suicides and attempted suicides.

"My own personal experience is that a couple of individuals that have approached me have considered taking their life. . . They've given up because they feel there isn't any hope for them," he said at a news conference.

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Last week, Chief Alphonse and his council signed a declaration calling for a local state of emergency, noting that suicide alerts have jumped by more than 2.5 times in the past five years.

Chief Alphonse said his First Nation has lost two tribal employees to suicide in recent months.

"We are losing our most valuable resources – our children and our caregivers," he said.

From Feb. 26 to April 26, four First Nations males who were living between Duncan, B.C., and Nanaimo, B.C., committed suicide, said B.C. Corners Service spokeswoman Barbara McLintock.

Three of the four appear to be Cowichan members and were in their 20s and 30s, she said, adding the fourth male was 72 years old.

Chief Alphonse said the Cowichan Tribes is developing a strategic plan, "Embracing Life at Cowichan Tribes," and is asking the federal and B.C. governments to bring in resources to help prevent further suicide deaths or attempts.

Chief Alphonse said a tragic event from his personal life highlights the critical need for immediate government response to suicide issues.

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He said he once chose to wait a short time before helping a friend who spoke of suicide, but he made the wrong choice.

"It's something that I regret to this day," said Chief Alphonse. "I had asked him to wait for at least half an hour while I delivered some equipment back to the rental place I rented the equipment from and when I had returned, he had already completed the suicide."

"So I know personally the impact when someone is talking about committing suicide, that it's important to stay there because you may not have the second chance," he said.

Chief Alphonse called on federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan to visit the Cowichan Tribes and start to work with the First Nation on an urgent basis to address suicide prevention.

Chief Alphonse acknowledged that other First Nations across Canada are struggling with equally troubling issues, but Mr. Duncan needs to come to Cowichan, "because of the valuable resources – because of our children who are crying out for help."

Mr. Duncan could not be immediately reached for comment, but a spokesman for federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said her department will contact the Cowichan Tribes in the coming days to offer help.

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Steve Outhouse said Ottawa can bring extra resources to the First Nation.

Chief Alphonse said the high unemployment rate in his community, which he estimated at 85 per cent, is contributing to a deepening malaise that has grown deadly.

"There is a sense of hopelessness," he said.

"We're at a time where I guess the economy is difficult, there's high unemployment, many of the inherent rights that we know of are being eroded, for example our hunting rights, our fishing rights."

The Cowichan Tribes, with 4,500 members, bills itself as the single-largest band government in B.C., and its traditional territory covers the area of Cowichan Valley on the southeast side of Vancouver Island.

Chief Alphonse said the declaration is part of a plan to give band members hope that the epidemic will end.

"It's devastating whenever an individual is successful," he said. "It impacts not only the immediate family, but the entire community. That's where the ripple effect seems to take place."

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