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Canadian First Nation Declares State Of Emergency Over Suicide Attempts

The isolated Cree community of Attawapiskat — shown several years ago, in a photo by the <em>Toronto Star</em> — struggled all winter with a high rate of suicide attempts.
Spencer Wynn
Toronto Star via Getty Images
The isolated Cree community of Attawapiskat — shown several years ago, in a photo by the Toronto Star — struggled all winter with a high rate of suicide attempts.

The leaders of the Attawapiskat First Nation, an isolated Cree community in northern Ontario, Canada, have declared a state of emergency over a series of suicide attempts.

The CBC reports that about 2,000 people live in the community. On Saturday night, according to Chief Bruce Shisheesh, 11 people attempted suicide.

That comes after 28 suicide attempts in March, the Canadian news service reports:

"Including Saturday's spate of suicide attempts, a total of 101 people of all ages have tried to kill themselves since September, Shisheesh said, with one person dying. The youngest was 11, the oldest 71."

On Saturday night, Shisheesh and the Attawapiskat Council voted unanimously to declare a state of emergency. It's prompted health officials from the state and provincial governments to declare they will be sending assistance to Attawapiskat, where there are no mental health specialists and only four health care workers, the CBC writes.

Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau, called the spate of suicide attempts "heartbreaking" on Twitter, and said the government would work to improve living conditions for indigenous people.

Charlie Angus, the member of Parliament for the region, said communities in Canada's remote north get fewer resources to respond to suicide attempts and called this winter's series of attempts a "rolling nightmare," the CBC reports.

The Attawapiskat community has made headlines in Canada before: In 2011, it suffered an acute housing crisis. In 2012, then-chief Theresa Spence went on a hunger strike to call attention to Canada's treatment of First Nations. In 2013, an audit found that Attawapiskat couldn't account for all the federal funds it had received. That same year, some members of the community blockaded a road to a nearby diamond mine.

In 2012, The Toronto Star noted that the issues on the Cree reserve went far beyond headline-grabbing crises.

"For much of the year," the Star wrote, Attawapiskat "is accessible only by air, which complicates life here terribly. For example, home repairs are near impossible because neither materials nor skills are available locally. There is no permanent doctor at the local hospital. ... Teachers and nurses, almost all non-aboriginal, feel marooned and don't stick around too long."

Unemployment was at 70 percent in 2012, the Star wrote, and many students didn't attend school regularly, seeing no point.

The BBC notes that Canada's 1.4 million indigenous people have a lower life expectancy than other Canadians, and that Attawapiskat is not the only First Nation grappling with a high rate of suicide attempts.

"Another Canadian aboriginal community in the western province of Manitoba appealed for federal aid last month, citing six suicides in two months and 140 suicide attempts in two weeks," the BBC writes.

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Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.