Aboriginal suicides to be addressed at UN gathering

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues will talk about suicide next month.

Brandi Morin
APTN National News
The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues will talk about suicide next month.

It’s a growing problem in Canada and around the world, Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Wilton Littlechild told APTN National News on March 10 in Winnipeg.

The suicide rate in First Nation communities in Canada is five to six times higher than that of the total population. The disparity is even higher among Inuit people at six to 11 times higher.

It’s a plague that is mostly affecting the young. Suicide accounts for more than one-third of all deaths among Aboriginal youth.

The First Nation community of Maskwacis, Alta. (formerly known as Hobbema), has been reeling from multiple suicides in recent months. A reported 40 people took their lives over a three-month period from November 2014 to January 2015.

It`s hard to find someone in the central Alberta community who has not been affected.

Rick Lightning, hails from Ermineskin Cree Nation –  one of the four bands that makes up Maskwacis. He lost his 27-year-old granddaughter in February.

Then his own daughter took her life on March 4.

“It’s a pain that – when you have an anxiety attack – it’s like multiply that by 100,” said Lightning.

“You question yourself – the could’ve, the should’ve – trying to formalize it in your mind and trying to get an understanding as to the whole reason behind it.”

His daughter Ambur Lightning, 20, seemed to have everything going for her. She was beautiful; an honours student taking a makeup artistry course in Edmonton with dreams of one day making it big in the industry.

She had had a fight with her boyfriend and was under the influence when, perhaps, during a moment of despair she decided to end it all.

Community members say suicides seem to have a domino effect and some youth tend to romanticize the idea of it.

Last week, clusters of loved ones gathered around the Lightning family home to grieve, including Ambur’s peers. But through his tears, Lightning pleaded with the youth to choose a different path.

“I told her friends ‘I need you girls to live, I need you girls to fly,’” he said.

“This is a pain. When it’s self-harm like that, it’s an extreme pain that you can’t even describe it.”

Ironically, Rick works with youth in the community and teaches about suicide prevention. He is currently leading a grief recovery workshop while working to get through the shock of Ambur’s death.

But it’s not enough, he said. The community is crying for answers, for help and funding to put more preventative measures into place.

“It’s in Indian Country across our land! We see all of these things, but where’s the money so we can hire people to come in and work with the youth? We could create something that gives them hope,” he said.

Community health workers labor around the clock to keep up with the crisis.

Ermineskin First Nation Chief Randy Ermineskin said the issue needs to be talked about more and that the community needs to come together to identify how to help. As for the reasons why suicide is so rampant, he said it’s difficult to pin down.

“That`s a very, very tough question to answer because you can say one thing and then the next day the ones you think are doing right could be the ones that are affected by it,” said Ermineskin. “There`s too much noise out there for our young people nowadays and we`re not monitoring it and we don`t know what`s going on behind their bedroom doors.”

Wilton Littlechild, also from Ermineskin, lost his 12-year-old grandson last month to suicide.

He was also a member of parliament in the Brian Mulroney Conservative government and sponsored the first national conference on suicide prevention for Indigenous peoples back in the early 1990s.

He will be part of a team of delegates that is taking the issue to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York in April. This will be the first time the topic of suicide is addressed at the United Nations because it has become a serious problem for Indigenous communities not only in Canada, but in other parts of the world.

“I’m saddened by what’s going on locally at home because it’s increasing and it’s timely that we start discussing it at the leadership level, the highest leadership level,” said Littlechild.

“I feel really encouraged because I’ve been trying for a long time to get the United Nations to address the situation of youth at risk. What I hope will happen is that we will find out better and newer ways that we can prevent suicide in our communities. I know that there’s ways to prevent it that offer Indigenous youth to make a better choice- by that I mean to make a choice to live rather than to take a drastic step.”

During his time as commissioner, he travelled across the country listening to stories of both residential school and intergenerational survivors, and although there are many contributing factors to the reasons suicide happens, he believes the residential school experience is connected. He said sometimes the solution may just be taking the time to listen to someone if they reach out, as it just might encourage them to keep living. Suicide is now the leading cause of death among First Nations youth and adults up to age 44.

“For the first time I think many of us are openly talking about suicide, so we don’t know from before when it was not talked about whether it was more serious or this is a recent phenomenon. The fact that we’re willing and able to talk about the situation at the community level, nationally and internationally, I think is a good opportunity for us to deal with what appears to be an emerging situation that’s increasing.”

Although global attention to the rising numbers of Indigenous suicides is starting to unravel there is still not enough tangible information about its causes and adequate intervention methods.

Maskwacis has a 24-hour suicide prevention hotline and youth-centered programs put in place. However the community is still in dire need of additional resources, both Ermineskin and Lightning said.

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