Indigenous leaders alarmed by findings of new report on suicide and self-harm

Indigenous leaders are calling on the Federal and Provincial governments to follow through with their commitment to life promotion in Saskatchewan First Nation communities following the release of a report by the FSIN and the Saskatchewan Health Quality Council (HQC) that details the disproportionately high suicide rates faced by Indigenous people in the province.

According to the findings from the Oct. 2022 Self-harm and Suicide in First Nations Communities in Saskatchewan Full Report revealed on Monday, First Nations people in Saskatchewan are the number two highest per capita population in the world to engage in self-harm and suicide.

“Our findings indicate that there is a disparity. Rates of self-harm and suicide in Saskatchewan’s First Nation communities, especially its young people, are alarmingly high and far greater than in the rest of the population,” Sask. HQC CEO Tracey Sherin said. “Key takeaways from this research are that we must act now to protect the future that communities will lead, and that a coordinated approach is needed to address the complexity of this issue.”

Sherin said the research showed that drivers of suicide and self-harm for Saskatchewan First Nations are at the systemic, community, family, and individual levels.

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) Vice Chief David Pratt said if the issue is not seriously addressed, that number will continue to rise and Saskatchewan First Nations will eventually overtake the number one spot.

“Residential schools, mental health, all the traumas associated with addictions and all of those impacts that we face as First Nations people; it’s not our fault, anybody in this room. It’s not anybody sitting around this table, or even the current Federal and Provincial governments, but it’s our job to address it. It’s our job to fix it, it’s our job to make those critical investments.”

He said that now is time to make a long-term sustainable commitment at the nation level to improving mental health services. The FSIN has created a life promotions proposal that requires financial resources from both levels of government to begin undertaking the issue.

According to Pratt, part of the proposal is establishing a mental health secretary at the FSIN that will keep track of member nation’s data so individual communities can take the information to address the concerns in their own ways, whether that be a land-based approach or a more western-style technique.

“Over 70 per cent of the proposal is directly geared towards the first nations level, where they can develop their own strategies on how they want to move forward on addressing the issue of mental health,” Pratt said. “Every First Nation is unique; every First Nations has different protocols and belief systems in place, and we want to respect that.”

In 2020, previous Minister of Government Relations and Minister of First Nations, Métis and Northern Affairs, Warren Kaeding, and Regional Executive Officer for Indigenous Services Canada, Jocelyn Andrews, in place of Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, Marc Miller, signed a letter of commitment with the FSIN to work on addressing the issue of high suicide rates in Saskatchewan First Nations communities together. This came after the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation and Ochapowace Nation both declared a state of emergency in 2019 due to a significant rise in suicides and suicide attempts among the members of their communities.

During a press conference on Monday morning at FSIN headquarters in Saskatoon, Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation Chief Ron Mitsuing revealed the government never followed through with their commitments.

“We had our state of crisis three years ago now, then we had a lateral commitment two years ago and still no action there,” said Mitsuing. “Health Canada provided some therapists, which we are very thankful for. We had an incident through the holidays where we thought everything was safe. The Health Canada workers went home, and we lost two people there.”

Mitsuing lost his sister on Christmas and a close friend on New Year’s Day to suicide.

“The Federal and Provincial governments, lets get a move on this before it escalates,” he said. “The signs are not good out there.”

Chief Margaret Bear of the Ochapowace Nation said the families that lost their loved ones during the state of emergency are still hurting, to the point where some of them are contemplating suicide themselves.

“That’s how devastating suicide [is], what it does to a family,” said Bear. “My sister took her life in 1985, and to this day we never get over it. However, we find ways to cope with it; some cope with it in an unhealthy way, by utilizing drugs and alcohol.”

Bear said back home, there is a lack of capacity and a lack of resources plaguing the Ochapowace health support programs and services staff, leaving them overwhelmed and in need of outside support.

The crisis is ongoing, said Ochapowace Headwoman Audrey Isaac. She shared that another young man in the community recently committed suicide, even with the supports that the First Nation put in place to prevent more losses.

“We had a suicide crisis line, we had supports, mental health therapists, we had addiction workers; how does one move forward without committing suicide?” she asked.

In January of 2021, the Saskatchewan Health Quality Council and the FSIN signed an agreement to conduct a research project to understand the rates of suicide and self-harm for First Nations people in the province from the years of 2000 to 2020, with the intent to use the information to inform further actions to be taken as part of the strategy.

A technical advisory group was established by the FSIN to work with the Sask. HQC’s cultural advisory committee on designing the research, who then conducted focused interviews with elders and knowledge keepers to help them understand the meaning behind the numbers they were seeing.

According to Sherin, the Sask. HQC looked at publicly available coroner’s data to study the rates of suicide in the province. They found that First Nations males die by suicide three times more than non-First Nations males, and that First Nations females died by suicide just over six times more than non-First Nations females.

Bailey Sutherland, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Prince Albert Daily Herald