OTTAWA — A northern Manitoba First Nation declared a state of emergency after 140 students and young adults stepped forward and admitted to seriously considering suicide in the past three months.

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OTTAWA — A northern Manitoba First Nation declared a state of emergency after 140 students and young adults stepped forward and admitted to seriously considering suicide in the past three months.

Pimicikamak Cree Nation in Cross Lake hopes their declaration Wednesday gets immediate help from the federal and provincial governments. Typically such a declaration triggers additional assistance. Both levels of government were rushing to fill the need by late Wednesday, provincial ministers said.

Acting Chief Shirley Robinson: ‘I don’t want to put any more of my people six feet under.’</p>

Acting Chief Shirley Robinson: ‘I don’t want to put any more of my people six feet under.’

Five people have taken their own lives in Cross Lake First Nation in the last three months. At least 18 more have attempted suicide. Pimicikamak, the third-largest First Nation in Manitoba, is about 700 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

The elected chief is on a medical leave. Acting Chief Shirley Robinson told the Free Press there needs to be an intervention to help the community of more than 8,000 people. She said they need social workers, crisis counsellors, psychologists and more doctors and nurses to be in the First Nation 24 hours a day for an indefinite period.

"Our school counsellors, our teachers, chief and council, our clergy, elders, our doctors and nurses, we’ve all come together and we’ve tried. We’re tired. We’re exhausted. The whole community is grief-stricken," Robinson said. 

As the crisis deepened, the community took stock this week and tallied up the scores of students and young adults who have said they want to take their own lives. On Tuesday, two more students attempted suicide, triggering the call for a state of emergency, Robinson said. Altogether, there have been 140 separate pleas, including attempts and confessions of plans to commit suicide since the first suicide Dec. 12, she said.

"The way it’s been is that while we’re in the middle of dealing with one person, we get a call to go to another," Robinson said.

With 80 per cent unemployment, a housing crisis, overcrowding and growing homelessness, the community is overwhelmed and underserved, she said. 

The latest suicide, a woman in her 30s with three children, is Robinson’s cousin.

"I don’t want to put any more of my people six feet under," Robinson said. "We deserve the same standard of health care as any other Canadian." 

The band first approached federal officials after the second suicide in early January, and now they’re desperate.

This is not the first time Cross Lake has faced a suicide crisis, particularly among young people. In 1999, a number of suicides led to the funding of a crisis intervention program, but after two years funding expired and the program ended. The provincial government has spent $10 million since 2008 on youth suicide prevention, including funding peer-support workers and crisis intervention programs for youth in rural and remote communities.

Wednesday afternoon, a spokeswoman with Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada said they’d not yet received a band council resolution calling for a state of emergency, but INAC officials were preparing to respond regardless.

A spokeswoman for Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said INAC is doing everything it can to help prevent deaths.

INAC is already working with the chief and council to identify what is needed and respond as soon as possible. An additional mental-health worker was sent to Cross Lake for 19 days last month, the spokeswoman said. 

Several provincial government departments scrambled Wednesday to deal with the crisis.

Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Minister Eric Robinson said he spoke earlier in the day with Bennett. He said he and The Pas MLA Amanda Lathlin will travel to the community as soon as they can, perhaps on Monday.

Robinson said he and Premier Greg Selinger were awaiting a letter from the community on Wednesday setting out its needs.

"Some lives have been lost that shouldn’t have been lost, but we’re trying to deal with the issue the best way we know how," Robinson said.

A provincial mobile crisis unit, based in Thompson, has arrived in the community, and the Manitoba Adolescent Treatment Centre is also involved, provincial ministers said.

"There are a number of counsellors that are on the ground now providing support. Everyone in that community is exhausted, is afraid and scared that it’s going to happen to their loved one," Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said.

— with files from Alexandra Paul and Larry Kusch

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca