There were cupcakes. There were friends and family – a father holding a helium balloon emblazoned with the words "Happy Birthday, Princess." The princess was Finola Muswaggon, a star student with a big smile who was about to turn 15.
But instead of watching his daughter blow out birthday candles, Sy Umpherville released the balloon and watched it float into the northern Manitoba sky. He was letting her go, saying goodbye. Finola ended her life on Feb. 29; she was buried on March 6, her birthday.
"She was always smiling," Mr. Umpherville told The Globe and Mail. "Why would she do this?"
Finola is one of six people, most of them youth, who have died by suicide in Pimicikamak Cree Nation since Dec. 12. Dozens of others in the community of about 6,000 have made attempts in the past three months, and more than 150 students – in a school of about 1,200 – are on a suicide-watch list. This week, band leaders declared a state of emergency, catapulting the crisis into the headlines and highlighting what Canada's top indigenous chief has deemed a national suicide epidemic that reaches well beyond Pimicikamak.
"Our young people need hope and inspiration," Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations said in Winnipeg on Friday. "They don't see that right now. We've got to make those key strategic interventions now. It's a life-and-death situation."
The recent spate of suicides in the community, which has as its centre Cross Lake First Nation and is located about 500 kilometres north of Winnipeg, is the third in as many decades. It comes less than two months after the La Loche school shooting in northern Saskatchewan, which claimed the lives of four people. The shooting prompted a visit from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and reignited a national discussion about the challenges faced by remote indigenous communities, some of which lack running water, reliable heating, a single bank or even a gathering place for youth.
"This is the La Loche of northern Manitoba, except the shooter is society," said Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson, who represents 30-odd Manitoba communities, including Cross Lake. "We have to do more to invest in our young people in the north." Ms. North Wilson was at an unrelated suicide-prevention conference in Thompson, Man., this week. "Everyone had some connection to suicide, and they know the realities of how it affects people," she said.
The statistics are bleak: Suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading cause of death for First Nations people up to the age of 44 in this country; First Nations youth are five to six times more likely to die by suicide than their non-indigenous counterparts; at 11 times the national average, suicide rates for Inuit youth are among the highest in the world.
"The average Canadian citizen has got not the faintest sense of what it is like to be a native person in this country," said Gabor Maté, a retired physician and author who specializes in addiction, stress and childhood development. "On the one hand, suicide is traumatic, but on the other hand, suicide is also an outcome of trauma. It's just one more link in the chain of trauma."
The federal Liberal government has promised to rebuild the nation-to-nation relationship and work toward reconciliation, in part by improving the lives of indigenous people – including in the north, where health and social services are often sparse and unpredictable. Cross Lake, for example, typically has one federally funded mental-health therapist who treats patients 10 days of each month (in mid-February that was boosted to about 19 days a month). There is very little for the youth to do beyond playing sports and attending school – a place the Otter Nelson River School principal called the "beehive" of the community. Its gym has lately hosted funerals.
"It's happening faster than we can deal with," principal Gordon Hum said of the deaths and suicide attempts. He has spoken with several young people this week who sounded desperate and, possibly, suicidal. He and two counsellors have spent their days bringing in small groups of at-risk students for sharing circles. This is what Mr. Hum and counsellor Elaine Beardy said they are hearing from the children: Nobody is listening to me. There's nothing for me in the community. I'm lonely. I'm grieving the loss of someone who ended their life.
The people of Pimicikamak also lament the historic injustices that have led to today's social ills. Some were forced to attend residential schools, others are children of survivors who were abused and fell into addiction. All six of the most recent victims are said to have had some connection to the child-welfare system, whether direct or indirect. Hydro development, which can be traced back to the Northern Flood Agreement of 1977, regularly leads to flooding, forcing people from their homes, disrupting wildlife and affecting transportation routes. Last year, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger apologized for the damage and acknowledged that indigenous people were not properly consulted on the river-diversion project.
Tens of millions in federal and provincial dollars related to the 1977 agreement have flowed to Cross Lake since the dam was built, but it is still lacking in basic infrastructure such as adequate housing and a community centre. Unemployment is said to be around 80 per cent.
"It's depressing," said 20-year-old Allison Blacksmith, whose aunt took her own life last weekend. "There's nothing here. Most people just get pregnant, get married, have babies." Ms. Blacksmith, who lamented her overcrowded family home, works part-time at a local gas station and has thought about leaving the community to attend school in Brandon. The death of her aunt – a mother of three named Lucille Blacksmith – has called those plans into question. "I haven't done anything since Monday," she said Thursday.
Provincial Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson, who is from Cross Lake and whose mother suffered from addiction after being abused at a residential school there, said he does not believe any level of government, including his own, is doing enough to prevent suicides and address the underlying causes. "We're just going to have to keep working," said Mr. Robinson, a residential-school survivor who lost his niece to suicide a decade ago. "People can brush this aside and say: 'They're Indians. They're the responsibility of the federal government' … But these are Manitobans. They're fellow citizens."
He and other provincial leaders, including the Premier, met with the Pimicikamak Cree Nation leadership Thursday to discuss the situation and formulate a plan. Mr. Robinson said he hopes to travel to the community as early as next week, in part because he wants to hear directly from the youth about what they want and need.
Federal officials from Indigenous Affairs and Health Canada are also expected to be on the ground in Cross Lake early next week to meet with indigenous leaders. In recent days, the federal and provincial governments have deployed a total of eight additional mental-health therapists and crisis counsellors to the community, at least four of which will remain there for eight weeks. Keith Conn, an acting assistant deputy minister for Health Canada, told The Globe the federal department is considering additional investments in Cross Lake and may expedite upgrades to, or the replacement of, the local nursing station. "We're there for the long haul," he said.
The province and Manitoba Hydro are also funding an intervention program that will target at-risk youth affected by suicide. And with March break around the corner and little in the way of regular youth programming, there are moves afoot to bring in entertainers, such as singer Robb Nash.
Mr. Umpherville, for his part, plans to return to his job at a hydro dam north of Thompson on Tuesday. He said he needs some time away from home. At age 38, he has lost his only child, whom he raised with the help of his parents after Finola spent her early years in government care. There were no signs of his daughter's desperation, he said, though he now wonders if her death was related to the suicide of her close friend earlier this year.
His family has rallied around him, including his two young nieces who gave him a note written in red marker that read, in part, "We know you are hurt inside so we just want you to know that everything's gonna be alright."
Asked what message he has for Canadians, Mr. Umpherville said: "I would tell them to hug their kids every day and let them know that they're loved."
With a report from Julien Gignac and The Canadian Press