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Opinion The suicide epidemic of Cross Lake: Consider urban resettlement

The numbers are as heartbreaking as they are staggering: six youth suicides in the past three months; 140 people attempting or threatening to kill themselves in a recent two-week period; more than 100 kids on suicide watch.

If we were talking about a burgeoning metropolis such as Toronto, this situation would seem absurd and irrational. The fact that this is occurring in a community of 6,000 makes it all the more unfathomable and disturbing.

News of the unfolding tragedy in Northern Manitoba's Pimicikamak Cree Nation grabbed the country's attention last week, albeit briefly. Indigenous leaders called on the federal government to develop a national strategy to deal with what is certainly a suicide epidemic among First Nations people in Canada, and in particular the young. Aboriginal youth are five to six times more likely to die by suicide than their non-aboriginal counterparts.

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That is an appalling fact.

Our political leaders made the predictable noises. Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett conceded that suicide is endemic among First Nations communities coast to coast. "This has to stop," she said. She vowed to get some additional mental-health workers to help the Pimicikamak reserve, known as Cross Lake. Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger visited Cross Lake and pledged to bolster health services in the community.

The only people who dared broach the central issue underlying the suicide crisis were native leaders themselves: Young people in remote towns such as Cross Lake are being overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness and despair. There is often little in the communities to do and even less to aspire to, especially a decent job (unemployment is estimated at 80 per cent in Cross Lake). So the young turn to booze and drugs and live off meagre amounts of federal social assistance to survive. Young women begin having children in their teens with no practical means of caring for their offspring; consequently the newborns often become wards of the state. And thus the cycle of anguish and misery is repeated, generation after generation.

What is the answer to help those living in places such as Cross Lake? More mental-health services would certainly be welcome; more recreational facilities, too. That could help dissuade some from taking their life in the belief that death is better than the pain they are enduring.

But more counsellors and gyms are not going to provide the people of the Pimicikamak Cree Nation with what they need most: a fundamentally better life.

There is unlikely to ever be a thriving economy in Cross Lake, the kind that can raise a town's standard of living. The brutal truth is, if the young people of Pimicikamak yearn for something more, they will almost certainly have to move to larger urban centres, where there are greater options, including jobs, to find it.

To even suggest this, however, amounts to heresy for some. In a recent piece in Maclean's magazine, Scott Gilmore, a former diplomat (and the spouse of federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna), advocated for this very thing. For his efforts, he was pilloried and branded a racist.

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In a second piece, Mr. Gilmore bolstered his argument with Statistics Canada-backed data: Aboriginal youth who leave remote, isolated northern communities such as Cross Lake and La Loche, Sask. (the predominantly indigenous town where four people died in a recent shooting rampage), are twice as likely to graduate from school, see their odds of becoming employed increase by 30 per cent and see their incomes rise about an equal amount. As well, aboriginal children living in urban settings become 40 per cent less likely to commit suicide.

This isn't a call for forced relocation or assimilation or the abandonment of a person's indigenous culture or past. It is simply the reality, and it applies, equally, to non-aboriginal people living in similarly far-flung, economically bereft towns across Canada. It is why so many have left these smaller communities over the past few decades for cities that have far more to offer.

Improve the services in Cross Lake and other communities like it, by all means. But perhaps government should also consider establishing programs to help aboriginal youth looking for new opportunities elsewhere to make that transition.

Ms. Bennett says the Pimicikamak Cree Nation is not alone when it comes to the type of suffering it is enduring. Except Cross Lake and aboriginal communities like it are alone, and in many respects that is largely the problem.

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