The Keewatin Tribal Council declared a regional state of emergency on Thursday afternoon to draw attention to the "dire" situations on the northern Manitoba communities and to urge immediate government action.
The tribal council is made up of 11 communities, including Shamattawa First Nation and God's Lake First Nation, which have already declared states of emergency in the last six months.
The regional state of emergency was prompted by system-wide deficiencies in public safety, health services and infrastructure, the tribal council said in a media notice.
"As I'm talking right now, our people are suffering and dying," Walter Wastesicoot, grand chief of the Keewatin Tribal Council, said at a Thursday news conference.
The deaths in the 11 communities largely involve suicide, drugs, violence and inadequate health care, which are preventable, he said, adding that the situation is becoming dire with each passing day.
"This regional state of emergency that we are declaring today is going to be placed indefinitely," he said.
The communities are dealing with crises involving housing, cost of living, employment as well as a lack of year-round roads and air service, which affect access to health care and justice.
A lack of aircraft and pilots have also caused significant court delays, leaving the communities vulnerable, Wastesicoot said.
"Justice is delayed or denied and offenders are not dealt with in a timely manner," he said. "They remain in the communities at large without adequate or any police resources available to prevent further crimes."
The First Nations are calling for financial help from the federal and provincial governments, and recognition that they are dealing with legislated negligence and poverty, a news release issued earlier Thursday said.
A letter calling for immediate government intervention was signed by each of the chiefs of the First Nations at the news conference, and will be delivered to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Minister of Indigenous Services Patty Hajdu and Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson.
Wastesicoot introduced the idea of the prime minister enacting the Emergencies Act to deal with the crises on the First Nations, but he said government officials need to be willing to meet with them, since they've previously taken weeks to over a month to meet with affected communities after declaring a state of emergency.
"That kind of response times to states of emergencies are not acceptable," Wastesicoot said.
God's Lake First Nation declared states of emergency involving suicides and a drug crisis in 2019 and 2022, and Wastesicoot said both continue to be active.
Shamattawa First Nation declared a state of emergency earlier this month in response to several recent suicides and a fire that destroyed the homes of eight families on March 9, when the community's fire truck was in Winnipeg for repairs.
In February, a fire in Tataskweyak Cree Nation consumed an apartment building and displaced 49 people. After the fire, Chief Taralee Beardy told CBC the fire could have been prevented.
"We lost eight homes … and if we had a fire truck, we could have probably saved the whole apartment complex," Beardy said.
The other communities in the tribal council are Barren Lands First Nation, Bunibonibee Cree Nation, Fox Lake Cree Nation, Manto Sipi Cree Nation, Northlands Denesuline First Nation, Sayisi Dene First Nation, War Lake First Nation and York Factory First Nation.
Wastesicoot said use of the term "state of emergency" was used specifically because it is eye-catching.
"This is a term that we are using to draw attention to the systemic racism that we face everyday," he said.
"Canada talks about doing well by the Indigenous populations of Canada when they travel the world, yet our communities are in Third World conditions."