Archbishop Murray Chatlain says failed relationships are causing aboriginal youth to kill themselves. Photo courtesy of Anne Hanley

Native suicide crisis part of the heartache of ministering in First Nations’ communities

  • March 11, 2016

Living alongside Canada's First Nations people is a ministry of highs and heartaches for Archbishop Murray Chatlain.

And the heartache comes to the forefront at times like now, highlighted by a suicide crisis that has struck the First Nations’ community of Cross Lake, Man.

"You suffer the highs and the lows of the family," said Chatlain, Archbishop of Keewatin-Le Pas, who has ministered to First Nations for 15 years. "When there are signs of this depression, this deep pain, we try to be as present as we can and refer people to some of the resources that are sound. The level of depression and giving up, this is increasing ... and  it is disheartening. 

"People get stuck in that too and then that brings more tragedy, there is a bit of that cycle going on."

Spiking suicide statistics fin Cross Lake has brought attention to the crisis Chatlain has seen firsthand for years. 

Since Dec. 12 six have taken their own life on the reserve with 140 attempted suicides reported in the two weeks prior, leading to Acting Chief Shirley Robinson declaring a state of emergency in the community of about 8,000 on March 9. Robinson called on the federal government for support.

"There is so much hurt, there's so much pain," Robinson told the CBC. "We're tired. We need that support, we need that assistance, everybody in our community feels it ... this is too much for me." 

The community’s two nurses are reported to be working around the clock as they try to get a handle on the mental health of Cross Lake's people.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Health Minster Jane Philpott say the federal government is determined to address the underlying causes. Bennett called the Cross Lake crisis a snapshot of a national struggle. 

"Cross Lake is not alone,” said Bennett. "This is happening coast to coast to coast and we need to stop it."

That's a reality Chatlain's all to familiar with. 

“Cross Lake is getting attention now, unfortunately because of the large number, but we have had an epidemic of suicides in so many of our communities,” said Chatlain,. “The number of suicides that we have had ... is more than alarming in a whole many communities.” 

He said suicides have recently occurred in Pukatawagan, Man., Pelican Narrows, Sask., and Wollastan Lake, Sask. 

This isn’t a new issue. Research from the University of Manitoba, published in 1997 and looking back to 1988, shows the issue is decades old. In 1995 the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People released a special report on suicide among First Nations’ people calling for the establishment of a national prevention program. More recently in 2004 the framework was laid for the National Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy.

But the situation hasn't improved. 

“It's been there in all my years,” said Chatlain, who's served in both Keewatin-Lee Pas and the neighbouring Mackenzie-Fort Smith diocese over the past decade and a half. “We've had this pattern for many years but ... it's a little worse now.” 

A report released by Statistics Canada in January says one in five aboriginals involved in a 2012 study had experienced suicidal thoughts, citing addictions, poor health and divorce as contributing factors to the persistent problem. 

Substance abuse and an unemployment rate of about 80 per cent, according to Robinson, are taking their toll on the First Nations of Cross Lake. But Chatlain said it is failed relationships that are having the biggest impact on youth. 

“Something that is common is that often there are boyfriend-girlfriend issues,” he said. “There is a break up and these young people are not sure what to do with all of those emotions and pain. That is often a piece of some of this suicide issue.”

According to Statistics Canada aboriginal youth are five to six times more likely than non-First Nations to commit suicide, the leading cause of death among aboriginals 44-years-old and younger. First Nations’ males are three times as likely to commit suicide. 

In Cross Lake those statistics are seen in blood, tears and dead bodies. 

Fr. Guru Mendem, pastor of Holy Cross Church in Cross Lake, said the majority of those who've committed or attempted suicide this year are between 14 and 32 with the majority being adopted children younger than 21. 

“It is very sad to see small children committing suicide,” said Mendem, now in this third year at Holy Cross. “They don't even know what life is and already they are committing suicide. (They) lack love from the parents.”

Four of the six recent suicides involved teens with the youngest being a 14-year-old who was buried on March 6, the day she would have turned 15. At the local high school 170 students are currently on suicide watch, according to principal Gordon Hum. 

Mendem, who came to Holy Cross two years ago from India, said while suicide is a global problem, he never expected it to be so prevalent among the aboriginal youth. To curb this he and the local youth director regularly hold events like prayer groups for youth. 

“I'm trying to gather them together, all of the youth, for some prayer,” he said. “I'm trying to invite them here. (But) they're from mixed faiths, they're not all Catholics.” 

Still, Chatlain says the Church has solutions for these suicidal people by giving them a sense of purpose. 

“A connection and rootedness in trying to do God's will brings purpose and meaning,” he said, adding the diocese recently held a youth retreat in the Cross Lake region. “The challenge is trying to get these communities to see some good, to see that there is hope and to get a sense of God having a plan for them. We're trying to renew that sense with our young people but there is a lot of negative winds blowing and it is hard for some of our young people to stand in the face of this.” 

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