ATTAWAPISKAT, Ont. - A suicide pact by 13 young aboriginal people, including a nine-year-old, has been thwarted on a remote First Nation in northern Ontario where local leaders say they're so overwhelmed by the suicide crisis that extra police officers have been called in from nearby communities.
Anna Betty Achneepineskum of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation said the youths were overheard making a pact to kill themselves on Monday and police brought them to the local hospital in Attawapiskat for an evaluation.
But the hospital was already treating other patients who had attempted suicide in recent days and couldn't see all of the new arrivals, Achneepineskum said, so about half of them temporarily waited in jail for treatment, the only other place where officials felt their safety could be secured.
"There are so many things that are needed here," she said in an interview. "So many things."
Achneepineskum said the entire community of about 2,000 in the James Bay region is so overburdened by the rash of suicide attempts that three of the reserve's four health-care workers were sent to Thunder Bay for counselling and rest as reinforcements came in to help.
Health Canada said Tuesday that roughly 18 additional people — including a crisis co-ordinator, two youth support workers and a psychologist — had been deployed as temporary crisis relief since a state of emergency was declared in Attawapiskat.
But Keith Conn, an assistant deputy minister for the department's First Nations and Inuit health branch, stressed "more aggressive" efforts must be made to meet the community's mental health needs in the long term.
The emotional distress of the teens and the dearth of resources in place to help them is a direct result of more than a century's worth of fraught relations between First Nations communities and the federal government, one leader said.
Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day said the pervasive ills plaguing aboriginal Canadians can be traced back to the Indian Act of 1876, which is marking its 140th anniversary.
Day said the act, which effectively transferred all decisions affecting First Nations to officials in Ottawa, set the stage for decades of turmoil, including residential schools, where young aboriginals endured horrific abuse.
Those experiences are at the heart of issues that include addiction, poor health and unemployment, all of which tend to converge on Canadian reserves that include Attawapiskat, Day said. Officials responsible for collecting demographic data on Attawapiskat did not respond to requests for the information.
Governments are still controlling the flow of money going to troubled First Nations, Day said, adding that until that stops, nothing can significantly change.
"There's a lot to be said about the link between control of resources . . . and the actual ability with those resources to have types of programs and services that are needed," he said.
Financial resources are not as scarce for Attawapiskat as they are for other communities.
In 2008, global diamond giant De Beers began production from its Victor Mine, 90 kilometres west of Attawapiskat. It provides employment and royalties to the community, including contributing to a trust fund which is now reportedly at $13 million.
However, Day said First Nations are still at the mercy of governments and other partnerships that allocate amounts well short of what's actually needed to address long-standing issues.
Day pointed to a community plan for Attawapiskat in 2011 that earmarked $2.7 million for repairs of delapidated housing, but said the same plan also identified the cost of a complete overhaul as closer to $60 million.
Mental health resources are in a similar state of crisis on the reserve.
The Attawapiskat chief declared a state of emergency Saturday evening, citing the community's 11 suicide attempts so far in the month of April and 28 recorded attempts in March.
Achneepineskum, a deputy grand chief with Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a political organization that represents 49 First Nations communities including Attawapiskat, had already made plans a month ago to come into the community to talk about the crisis when the latest wave of suicide attempts was reported.
"There is no youth mental health worker, there is no recreation co-ordinator. There's a few people that are taking it upon themselves to organize little activities for the young people, but we need more help," she said.
Day said he senses a new spirit of co-operation among government officials along with heightened awareness in the Canadian public at large. Such sentiments will be key to making long-lasting changes, he added.
"It's going to be based on how fast the action will occur, how much the government will veer away from its old top-down approach and actually include us in discussions that will affect our lives."
A former prime minister who dealt with similar issues during his tenure said Tuesday there are no quick fixes.
"It's an extremely difficult problem," Jean Chretien said. "I was with this problem in 1968, a long time ago. It takes time and patience and there's always tragedies of that nature that occur and the government has to do its best to cure it. But it's not easy."
In Attawapiskat itself, though, officials are focused on more short-term concerns.
Achneepineskum said some of the young people who made the suicide pact have been released back to their parents, while others are being treated for a variety of mental health issues. Officials said there will be a review of how youth are assessed, diagnosed and discharged in light of those concerns.
A boy who was airlifted out on the weekend after trying to kill himself is set to return to Attawapiskat on Tuesday, Achneepineskum said.
"What happens to him?" she asked. "We've heard of some where they come home and that night they're back at the hospital again because they attempted suicide."
By Liam Casey and Michelle McQuigge in Toronto, with files from Paola Loriggio
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Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version wrongly attributed some information to Ontario's Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle. He did not say Attawapiskat receives $2 million in revenue share from the Victor Mine.