Suicide crisis prompts Island Lake chiefs to call for equal access to health care

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee, left, Red Sucker Lake Chief Sam Knott, next to him, Garden Hill First Nation Chief Charles Knott, Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Cindy Woodhouse and Island Lake Anishininew Okimawin Grand Chief Scott Harper, right, speak at a news conference Wednesday in Manitoba. (Warren Kay/CBC - image credit)

Leaders of four remote Manitoba First Nations are calling on the provincial and federal governments to do more to ensure equal access to health care and social services to deal with rising mental health and addictions issues.

Chiefs from Island Lake First Nations held a news conference Wednesday with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Assembly of First Nations and Keewatinook MLA Ian Bushie (NDP) to call for more crisis and long-term care options, including a hospital, in the communities of Garden Hill, St. Theresa Point, Wasagamack and Red Sucker Lake.

"All Island Lake community members and leadership are daily trying to help the people who are suffering so much that the risk of suicide is a constant threat," Scott Harper, Island Lake Anishininew Okimawin grand chief, said at the news conference.

"Canada must provide Island Lake First Nations with substantive equality in the health and social services that other Canadians have."

He called on both levels of government for more immediate crisis supports and long-term investment, including the construction of an addictions treatment centre and hospital to serve the roughly 18,000 people who live in the four communities.

"An urgent strategy is needed to address colonization's intergenerational traumatic effects, combined with decades of insufficient resources and funding, which has created a pandemic of suffering," he said.

The calls come as Red Sucker Lake mourns the loss of two people to suicide and 17 attempts in the past couple of months. One of those who died was a 16-year-old who was found at a playground.

The fly-in community, located about 530 kilometres northwest from Winnipeg, has been under a state of emergency for two weeks.

Submitted by Sam Knott
Submitted by Sam Knott

Red Sucker Lake Chief Samuel Knott said there is an urgent need for more programming for youth in the community, in addition to a range of addictions and other basic care options.

Most people don't even have clean, potable water and sewage disposal in their homes, he said.

"Chaos, mental health problems, food security, inadequate housing have families in our First Nation in Third World conditions and do not make the word 'hope' something Red Sucker Lake First Nation would even say," Knott said.

"The government mistrust, empty promises, false hope, broken treaties have us concerned, cornered with a lack of support and funding required to be at par with the rest of society."

Warren Kay/CBC
Warren Kay/CBC

Garden Hill Chief Charles Knott also said drugs, alcohol and a lack of things to do are contributing to challenges that could be addressed with appropriate supports and more robust local health care.

"A couple years ago, it wasn't like that, but nowadays these new drugs that have come in our community, it's taking over," he said. "We need help because our youth are suffering. They have nothing to do."

There are four nurses working in his community of about 4,000, and that needs to change, he said.

His community also needs support for its local constable policing program, which he said is currently not funded by government.

"This is where we need help the most is to police our communities," he said.

St. Theresa Point Chief Elvin Flett said the current system of flying sick people to Winnipeg isn't working and is costing the government more in the long run.

When the NDP was in government, they supported a proposal to build a local hospital, but that provincial support disappeared once the Progressive Conservatives were voted in, he said.

"I am very disappointed in the fact that the PCs haven't stepped forward to address the kind of needs that we have in our region," he said. "Why are the governments ignoring the cry?"

Warren Kay/CBC
Warren Kay/CBC

AMC Grand Chief Cathy Merrick suggested Manitoba is leaving the issue to the federal government and "forgetting about the 18,000-plus" residents in Island Lake.

AFN regional Chief Cindy Woodhouse said Island Lake communities need access to the same care afforded to Canadians who don't live in remote areas.

"Eighteen thousand people without a hospital, that would never fly anywhere in Canada," Woodhouse said.

Garrison Settee, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents northern First Nations, said the limited services and barriers to care in remote regions are related to the history of colonialism.

"The system has perpetuated legislation and policies that are racist in nature, and they have to admit that," he said.

"If we want to talk about reconciliation, get rid of the racism in the system. It's harming our people, it's killing our people, and we must stop it."

Manitoba Mental Health Minister Sarah Guillemard said the province is willing to work with the federal government to come up with some long-term solutions to issues raised by the First Nation leaders.

"We're happy to join the federal government in those discussions to look at ways that we can help support the communities, especially in the rural and northern regions where these struggles really are taking hold," Guillemard said at a separate news conference.

She said an outreach team from the Manitoba Adolescent Treatment Centre has been in contact with Red Sucker Lake and plans to visit the community to offer support.

Funding from the province's 2022 budget is set to go toward a new health-care hub to service the north, a government spokesperson later said in a statement.

Indigenous Services Canada provides nurses and funding for community-based health programs, as well as transportation to Winnipeg for insured services. The department said it continues to support the Four Arrows Regional Health Authority, which provides services to the Island Lake communities, in its effort to expand provincially insured health services.

"We recognize there is more work to do in order to close the gap in access to quality health care between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples in Canada," said Randy Legault-Rankin, a spokesperson for the department.

Officials from Indigenous Services Canada met with the community last month and will continue to provide supports, said Legault-Rankin.

The department plans to increase its counselling services in the community by sending a therapist to Red Sucker Lake for a total of 10 days this month up from eight, it said in a statement.

If you or someone you know is struggling, here's where to get help:

Anyone needing help can contact the Hope for Wellness Help Line, which provides immediate, toll-free telephone and online-chat emotional support and crisis intervention to all Indigenous people in Canada. 

It's available 24/7 in English and French, and upon request in Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut.

Call the toll-free help line at 1-855-242-3310 or connect to the online chat at

Other available resources include: