Crisis of suicide, drug addiction deepens among northern Ontario First Nations

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Neskantaga Chief Peter Moonias declares state of emergency

Another isolated, drug-ridden First Nation is trying to cope with a deadly crisis of despair.

Leaders in Neskantaga, a community of between 300 and 4000 on James Bay about 480 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont., have declared a state of emergency after two suicides in a week.

Neskantaga, which can be reached only by air, has had seven deaths, including four suicides, and 20 suicide attempts in the last year, according to CBC News. The victims are mostly young.

The Canadian Press reports that last December the suicide of another young man prompted the community to put its youth on suicide watch.

[ Related: Suicides prompt First Nation to declare state of emergency ]

Neskantaga Chief Peter Moonias estimates that more than half the community's adult residents are addicted to OxyContin or other painkillers, CP said.

With the phase-out last year of crushable OxyContin pills in favour of a version of the drug that's harder for addicts to misuse, a predicted move to other painkillers has taken place. Moonias said Tylenol is being trafficked at $5 a pill.

To that you can add the stresses brought on by nearby mining development, which has not brought hoped-for employment, Nishnawabe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler told CBC News.

[ Related: Phase-out of OxyContin for safer version could trigger crisis among addicted natives: chiefs and experts ]

“We have reached a breaking point and our community is under crisis,” Neskantaga Coun. Roy Moonias said in NetNewsLedger, a northern Ontario news site. “Our community is exhausted emotionally and physically as we try to pick up the pieces from these tragic events.”

Suicide rates among First Nations youth are five to six times higher than for their non-aboriginal counterparts, Health Canada says. Suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading causes of death for aboriginal youth and adults aged up to 44 years.

First Nations leaders have also warned rising rates of substance abuse. Both problems seem especially acute among northern First Nations, which face isolation while at the same time coping with Third World living conditions, the loss of cultural identity and the pressure of encroaching resource development, CP noted.

A year ago, children of the Cat Lake reserve sent an open letter to the community's adults pleading with them to face their drug problems. It was estimated that up to 250 of Cat Lake's 700 residents were addicts.

In 2009, the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which encompasses 49 northern Ontario communities, declared a state of emergency, hoping for focus federal and Ontario government help on the region's problem with drugs.

[ Related: Children of drug-ridden Ontario First Nation reserve send pleading letter to elders ]

NetNewsLedger described Neskantaga as a community where youth make up more than 75 peer cent of the population and which faces a high rate of prescription drug abuse, sex abuse, water that's only drinkable when boiled, inadequate policing and no access to help proper mental health and addiction services.

The community has issued a call for help from any level of government.

“There are no treatments here, and more and more young people are taking their lives," Roy Moonias said. "This is unacceptable and something must change."