Indigenous leaders in Northern Ontario say community workers are exhausted and their children are dealing with tragedy upon tragedy after four more young people – three of them under the age of 16 – took their own lives in the past week.
The deaths bring the number of suicides this year among members of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a collection of 49 First Nations with a combined population of about 45,000, to 18 since the start of the year. Half of those who died were between the ages of 10 and 15, including three young girls who lived in the same small and remote community of Wapekeka.
"We're overwhelmed, first of all, and the message that we keep hearing over and over again from our leadership and our front-line workers is that they're exhausted and just trying to keep kids alive," Alvin Fiddler, the Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation said in a telephone interview on Thursday.
"We've become experts in crisis management," Mr. Fiddler said, "and what we're looking for now from different governments, provincial and federal, is some long-term sustainable strategies moving forward because we need to move beyond the crisis state we've been in for so long now."
The most recent string of deaths began with two children in Pikangikum over the weekend. One was a boy who was said to have been 10 or 12 years old. The other was a girl who was 12.
Then, on Tuesday, a 15 year-old-girl killed herself in the community of Summer Beaver.
And on Thursday, a 21-year-old man from the Fort Severn First Nation killed himself in Thunder Bay, where he had gone to obtain medical treatment.
Suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading cause of death of First Nations people under the age of 45 and the suicide rate for First Nations male youth is five times the national average.
Officials with the Nishnawbe Aski Nation say the numbers in their region are probably even higher than what has been reported because not all suicides are recorded as such or gain attention.
But the deaths in Wapekeka of 12-year-old Chantell Fox and her friend, Jolynn Winter, which occurred two days apart in January of this year, made national headlines, as did the suicide of 12-year-old Jenara Roundsky in June.
Leaders of that community say they told the federal government last summer that they were hearing about a suicide pact among their young people but a request for help garnered no immediate response from Ottawa.
Since the deaths in January, more federal assistance was provided. Health Canada says it is now paying more than $900,000 annually for mental-wellness programs in the fly-in village of 430 people. That includes $380,000 for four youth mental-health workers who were requested by the community.
But the people of Wapekeka remain anxious about the safety of their youth. On June 19, fearing further loss of life, Wapekeka declared a state of emergency. And the latest deaths are a reminder that children in other communities are also at risk.
"I understand that kids as young as 10, 11 and 12 in Wapekeka feel that they need to go out into the community, to patrol the community, with knives in their pockets so they can cut down a peer or friend who has tried to hang themselves," Mr. Fiddler said. "That's really sad. I can't imagine a child that has to live like that."