A Special Feature blog by Nicholas Boland-Cairney, Blog Writer

On April 10th, the Attawapiskat First Nation, a small reserve located 700km north of Sudbury, found itself in the midst of an unprecedented mental health crisis. A state of emergency was declared on April 9th after local resources had been exhausted by a rash of suicide attempts including 11 children who had attempted to take their own lives within a 24 hour period. Attawapiskat has seen 100 suicide attempts since last September and almost 30 in March alone. Particularly distressing is how many young people have taken their own lives, or attempted to do so. Now, a month after calling the state of emergency, we still find ourselves looking for clear answers – and it seems like most of the evidence is pointing to the incredibly complex and asymmetrical relationship between the government of Canada and Canadian First Nations communities who continue to deal with the genocidal legacy and systemic injustices of colonization.

Many commentators on the Attawapiskat crisis have used this as an opportunity to highlight a direct causal link between the institutionalization of the residential school system and mental health issues in contemporary First Nations communities. Policies that amount to a cultural genocide, as some contend, have plagued Indigenous families over multiple generations and have led to a situation of intergenerational trauma. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission officially stated these policies were ultimately a power grab to give settler society control over all  available resources and to assimilate Indigenous peoples into mainstream society. James Anaya, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, also warned of an impending crisis concerning the “distressing socio-economic conditions of indigenous Canadians” in his report in May of 2014. Some have claimed giving First Nation communities a fairer share of their own resources, effectively leveling the playing field in a resource economy, could act as a means to provide much needed autonomy over their own affairs.

The fact remains, however, that mental health issues in First Nations communities have reached a point where macro-level preventative strategies won’t produce satisfactory results for some time. These communities need help immediately – and it’s been that way for quite some time. In Nunavut, a territory consisting of just over 30,000 people, there are usually about 1,000 emergency calls for an attempted suicide every year. It should be noted that this number, along with most suicide rates for Indigenous communities, is markedly higher than the national average. Again, many commentators don’t skip a beat when relegating blame for widespread depression and substance abuse issues in First Nation communities to the history of European colonisation tactics including the residential schools system. As Guillaume Saladin, co-founder of Artcirq, points out, the main thing missing in our relationships with Aboriginal communities is a dependable level of trust.

While both the provincial and federal government have dispatched personnel and funding in the wake of the crisis in Attawapiskat, it’s obvious that this level of support has been long overdue. In particular, a noticeable treatment gap for mental health disorders across society has been noted in many reports, even some commissioned by the World Health Organization. It’s all too easy to see how this treatment gap can be taken to an extreme in Indigenous communities, given the history of systemic abuse discussed above. While it’s certainly encouraging to note that we are heading in the right direction, we need to come to the realization that we are far from being able to put this issue to bed.

If you find yourself in crisis, please don’t stay quiet. There are places available across the country that can offer help and support. Visit http://www.scielosp.org/pdf/bwho/v82n11/v82n11a11.pdf for a list of crisis centres near you.

To view more special features, see STAND Canada’s special features blogs focused on the STAND Canada Director’s Conference. Click here for one of our more recent publications.

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