Indigenous people continue to have significantly higher suicide rates than non-Indigenous people, with advocates claiming mistrust in police and lack of resources across Quebec have perpetuated the crisis.
David Chapman, executive director of Indigenous day shelter Resilience Montreal, still remembers an incident involving a Cree woman in distress and the police intervention that left him stunned.
“She had two broken bottles in her hands and she was talking about ending her life,” Chapman recalled in an interview. “I spent quite a long time with her. Eventually, she came to the place where she asked for an ambulance. I called 911 and made a request for an ambulance.
“Unfortunately, what we ended up with instead was a large group of police that arrived.”
Chapman said he was forced to mediate and the woman was eventually taken to hospital by ambulance.
The incident occurred at Cabot Square, an urban park in downtown Montreal with a substantial homeless Indigenous population.
Nakuset, the executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal who works with Chapman, said incidents like that are not uncommon across Montreal.
“When seven cop cars show up and a K9 Unit – so you have to understand that it is an actual truck with dogs in it that are barking – and that is very overwhelming to everyone that was in the park, but especially for that woman.”
Nakuset said escalations during police interventions only serve to feed distrust of the police.
“It is hard when you are in crisis, and you have to call the police,” she said, “and see whether they will help you or hurt you … and we haven’t yet seen it be helpful.”
In June, an inquiry into suicides by the Quebec coroner made 63 recommendations on prevention.
Coroner Julie-Kim Godin said her investigation focused on six deaths that dealt with similar issues.
“The aim was to conduct a public inquiry into the theme of concurrent disorders and suicides,” she told a news conference.
Godin said 1,055 people died by suicide in 2022, representing about three people per day.
Although the report did not mention Indigenous communities, it focused on how the response by police, health professionals and organizations might contribute to otherwise avoidable deaths.
One of the recommendations called for the implementation of “mixed police squads” that consist of pairing police officers with mental health professionals during crisis interventions.
The Montreal police service created its first mixed squad in 2012 in collaboration with the city’s health authority. Since then, they’ve doubled the staff, according to Cmdr. Alexandre Lelièvre, who oversees the mixed squads.
Lelièvre said their goal is to prevent suicide and assist vulnerable populations.
“In 2022, the mixed team made over 2020 interventions throughout the year,” Lelièvre told APTN News. “This clearly demonstrates the need for these teams and their value.”
Montreal police also have a mixed team that specifically works with the Indigenous population in the city. The initiative was created in 2012 in partnership with the Native Friendship Centre in Montreal.
Random street checks
However, recent statistics released by the police show they are still subjecting Indigenous women to random street checks at a rate several times higher non-Indigenous people, stoking doubt in their ability to help those in crisis, according to Nakuset.
“If they acknowledged the harm that they have done. If they offered some kind of steps to reverse the harm, that would be helpful,” she added.
The city of Val d’Or, about 530 km northwest from Montreal, has had its own mixed squad since 2016.
Johanne Lacasse of the Native Friendship Centre said the mixed teams have been helpful, but need cultural training.
“This cultural approach is necessary and very well integrated in the Native Friendship Centre.” she explained. “We, therefore, act as a partner to ensure that we accompany them (police and organizations) in a culturally adapted approach.”
But that is only one aspect of prevention.
Indigenous communities in northern Quebec desperately need additional resources across the board, according to advocates who say prevention plans are failing even at the federal level.
In January, the Quebec Human Rights Commission launched an investigation after five youths between the ages of 14 and 26 died by suicide in the span of five months last year in the community of Lac Simon, a First Nation in Quebec
Chief Lucien Wabanonik alleged the federal and provincial governments were not communicating with his community about the crisis. That work instead of regarding? yes
“Our organization does the best it can with the means it has,” he said in an interview. “We don’t have all of the means. We don’t have the same resources like the federal and provincial governments do. They have professionals, and we are in desperate need.