Suicide crisis 'a wake-up call,' says Sheshatshiu chief

A spate of suicide attempts in a Labrador First Nations community is a "wake-up call," says its chief.

Sheshatshiu First Nation Chief Eugene Hart says the community has lost 14 people to natural causes in the past year, and those deaths have taken a toll on residents.

"A lot of people don't have the time to grieve — we're steady burying people. It's affecting everybody. It's affecting the whole community," Hart told CBC News on Wednesday, a day after declaring a crisis in the reserve, which is about 30 kilometres north of Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Hart says the community doesn't have the resources to properly deal with the grief, and after a 20-year-old woman drowned over the weekend, and several suicide attempts — 10, according to the chief — he declared the crisis.

"This is a wake-up call to everybody."

Hart says he called Health Canada multiple times to alert them of the problem before he declared the crisis.

"I called Health Canada in the last two weeks. They're still working on my requests," he said. "I said, 'I'm worried.' I said, 'A lot of people [are] going through grieving.'" 

Rallying together for Sheshatshiu

John Gaudi/CBC

The Miawpukek First Nation in Conne River, N.L., is sending three counsellors from their communtity to Sheshatshiu, to lend a hand, said Hart.

And Labrador-Grenfell Health has set up an office of trauma counsellors at the community's Mary May Healing Centre.

"Things are happening," said the chief. "They're happening, but I'm just worried [about] what's happening out there. That's my fear."

Hart said N.L. Premier Dwight Ball has been receptive to his concerns. 

Jacob Barker/CBC

"He said, 'Chief Hart, what do you want us to do?' I think that's very respectful for him to say that to me, as the chief of Sheshatshiu. For him to call me yesterday, on his personal note, I think that means a lot for the community as well."

Hart said he told the premier he was concerned about a cut in funding for the community's arena.

"In Sheshatshiu, recreation is very high demand. Hockey is very high demand. You need to keep the kids active, and you'll see less trouble. The youth centre, we're funding it ourselves."

In a statement to CBC news, the premier said he is "extremely saddened and very concerned following a declaration from Sheshatshiu Innu Chief Eugene Hart that his community is in crisis."

The release goes on to say that two social workers with Labrador-Grenfell Health have been providing support and counselling in the community since Saturday.

Federal Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan says he has also been in touch with Hart and that the federal government is working with the province "to provide immediate, enhanced mental wellness supports."

Local support workers doing their best

Social worker Julie Pike says the Mary May Healing Centre will be open for 24 hours a day for the next few weeks.

"We're hoping that we can intervene now and provide any services … to help these youth and help these children stabilize somewhat so that we can move forward with future care for them," she said.

Joanna Michel, who also works at the centre, says that since the tragedy, people have been getting together and cooking for grieving families.

Eddy Kennedy/CBC

"Everybody teamed up here together," she said. "Teens are talking, and they're going through a lot of pain.… It's been really tough."

Anastasia Qupee, the current social health director of the Sheshatshiu First Nation, says that there is hope.

"You always gotta believe that there is hope. We're here, we're doing what we can, and I know that we'll come through this. The focus is on the children," she said.

Qupee blames the broader problems of colonialism as being responsible for some of the community's current issues.

"We're dealing with a lot of the legacies from colonialism. When you're dealing with that, it has impacts, and today we're still dealing with that."

"I think that's one of the challenges and that's one of the barriers when we're working with government - is [that] they have to bring down their ways because this is our community. We're the ones who know best. Our children are entitled to good lives, too."

A 2016 paper published in the American Journal of Public health found that Labrador's Innu population has a suicide rate 14 times higher than that of non-indigenous people in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (text) | http://www.crisisservicescanada.ca/ (chat)

In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (phone), Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca.

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre.

Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310 or chat online at hopeforwellness.ca.

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