Algonquins of Barriere Lake struggling with a mental health crisis


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Algonquins of Barriere Lake officials in northwestern Quebec are struggling to address a months-long mental health crisis.

Their community of Rapid Lake, located about four hours from Montreal, has had a dozen suicide attempts in the last two and a half months.

As well as two members who have taken their own lives.

“The latest suicide hit a lot of people because she was such a huge person, she was a friend to everyone and she was just…that person, you know?” said Nicole Ratt, director of the Barriere Lake Health Centre  “We didn’t think that would happen. That she would do that.”

According to Ratt, the community’s team of front-line workers has been thinned by burnout.

“We had a 24-hour crisis response team going on the weekends, there’s a total of four left. We were a team of ten,” explained Ratt.

Ratt said the social crisis team has very little support considering they frequently are the first on scene and can find themselves dealing with friends and family in crisis. Ratt does have counselors who visit to work with her staff, but adds that it’s not enough.

“We’re a community that’s very small, so we’re all connected in some way,” said Ratt “It’s been hard to retain these workers [social crisis staff].”

The community of about 600 is plagued with substance abuse and domestic violence.

Many houses are overcrowded and in disrepair.

And when things boil over, the nearest police station is an hour and half a way.

“I don’t want to give the connotation that we are a very dangerous, ferocious community,” says Barriere Lake Chief Tony Wawatie. “We’re just a community that’s suffering from the impacts of residential schools, the intergenerational impacts of Canada’s policies, Canadian settler state policies, and it pisses me off.”

Wawatie says the band council is in discussions with federal and provincial agencies to get more support.

He wants to put emphasis on long-term solutions for housing and policing fixed.

In a perfect world, Wawatie envisions a healing lodge on the land to help address addiction and mental health issues.

“I don’t want to see another successful suicide, that’s enough. And we need the Canadian government to help us in all this, to provide us with these things that we are requesting.”

Frontline workers like Ratt agree that the long-term issues must be addressed, but she says she can’t wait on bureaucracy much longer.

She would like a state of emergency to be called.

“I think it would speed up the process in certain areas and there would be a focus on certain things that we need, for instance maybe a mobile crisis team can be made available,” said Ratt.

When asked, Wawatie was non-committal with regards to calling a state of emergency.

“We have our director-general that’s talking with the bureaucrats to try to see whatever political action my leadership can take, we’ll do that. But at the same time, we’re being funneled sometimes through the bureaucracy and we have to work with that,” said Wawatie.

APTN News reached out to both the regional provincial health authorities and Indigenous Services Canada, who all according to Ratt, sit on a social services table with the community.

No statement was provided before the deadline.

Ratt says she has a meeting scheduled with them on Nov. 18.

But for the sake of her community, she’s hoping it’s something that can be pushed up sooner.

“It’s something we need quickly. I wish it would be something that was a lot faster but… we have to go with what we can get.”

Producer Nouvelles Nationales d'APTN / Montreal

Born and raised in Montreal, Tom cut his teeth working in community television in Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Territory before joining APTN as a cameraman/editor in 2008. In 2015 he was promoted to Video Journalist. Since 2019 Tom has been a producer for the French weekly newscast Nouvelles Nationales d’APTN.