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Ottawa to send money, province to send help to Cross Lake

John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files</p><p>Carolyn Bennett, Canada's Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs</p>

John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files

Carolyn Bennett, Canada's Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/3/2016 (409 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA – The federal budget will include investments in social programs and infrastructure needed to stop an epidemic of suicides in northern First Nations, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said Thursday.

Following question period, Bennett and Health Minister Jane Philpott expressed their sadness after six people on Pimicikamak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba took their own lives and another 18 attempted suicide since mid-December.

"We recognize that there are a huge number of underlying factors that have brought us to the place that we’re facing today with these young people taking their lives," Philpott said.

As many as 140 young people from Pimicikamak, also known as Cross Lake, have said they've had suicidal thoughts in recent months. The chief and council declared a state of emergency Wednesday, and the federal and provincial governments are sending additional crisis workers to the reserve.

Philpott said there is now a system to ensure two nurses are on duty at the nursing station overnight and additional therapists and mental health support workers have been made available.

Bennett said in addition to the immediate need for mental health support, huge social issues — the child welfare system and the  housing shortage — must be addressed.

"There are many issues that lead up to these kinds of tragedies," she said. "Obviously, in the upcoming budget (we) are hoping for a significant investment in the infrastructure and the kinds of real social infrastructure that’s required."

The Liberals have promised to lift the two per cent cap on annual funding increases for indigenous programs. They're promised significant infrastructure funding. The Liberals have pledged more than $3 billion in new funding over several years for education programs and school infrastructure on reserves.

Philpott and Bennett were in touch with the provincial government, Cross Lake vice-chief Shirley Robinson and northern Manitoba Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson Thursday.

Premier Greg Selinger was set to meet with Cross Lake leaders late Thursday in Winnipeg, and Manitoba Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson and NDP MLA Amanda Lathlin were scheduled to travel to Cross Lake Monday.

Selinger said the province’s northern health authority has assembled a team of professionals to respond to the crisis but they aren't there yet because the community leaders wanted a plan in place for how the additional help would be deployed.

"They’ve now come to an agreement on the people that could be available to help them for a concentrated period for up to eight weeks. And those people are available to go there at the desire of the community and the timing of the community," Selinger said.

He said the government and Cross Lake would discuss both short-term assistance and long-term initiatives to deal with the crisis and community issues, including additional recreational opportunities for youth.

Shirley Robinson said her community is encouraged by governments' offers to help now but said it should not have taken six suicides and media attention for them to step up.

"The governments, they’re starting to call now," Shirley Robinson said. "We were trying to reach them earlier. I’m starting to hear back from them now, with all the publicity. They want to work with us now. We kept trying to get them to come and assist, after the first one, and we kept firing at them after the second one and eventually we had no choice, there was so much happening. Everybody’s spirits are shattered in the community. It’s been constant for the past three months."

The publicity has triggered calls from counsellors and other experts from as far away as the United States.

"That means a lot to us. People wanting to come in and do workshops. People want to come in and do conferences, talk to the youth, go to the schools, professionals. They’re phoning the leadership, wanting to come in and help," the vice-chief said.

Cross Lake is just the latest First Nation to experience a suicide crisis.  Last month, chiefs from northern Ontario called for urgent action after a number of suicides in their communities. Last year, it was Shamattawa First Nation in northern Manitoba crying for help after four suicides in just one month.

Shamattawa Chief Jeff Napoakesik told the Free Press Thursday there was an immediate injection of mental health supports but he said that kind of help is just a Band-aid when the social factors that trigger the despair never change.

"It’s probably a number of things, but the No. 1 thing is living conditions, the overcrowding in our community," he said.

"I would encourage the province and also the federal government to go and look into why there is a suicide problem and if they do, the one thing that they can hit it with is more housing. I sincerely believe that will alleviate the problem," Napoakesik said.

Cross Lake is 700 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

— with files from Alexandra Paul and Larry Kusch

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Mia Rabson .

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