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Northern Manitoba First Nation sounds alarm over isolation after youth suicides

May 20, 2023

Manitoba airline pledges to increase frequency of flights to and from community 

A sign reads 'tansi, welcome to York Factory First Nation.'
York Factory First Nation, located about 900 kilometres north of Winnipeg, becomes accessible only by aircraft or ferry after winter ice roads crossing Split Lake are closed. (Robben Constant/Facebook)

CBC News: The chief of a northern Manitoba First Nation is sounding the alarm and calling on government to take immediate action to address the remote community’s isolation from the larger world, which he says is playing a role in its youth either taking their own lives or attempting to. 

Chief Darryl Wastesicoot of York Factory First Nation said recent suicides of two teen girls and attempts by five other community youth are a tragic symptom of the community being cut off because of how remote it is, combined with an overall lack of resources.  York Factory, located about 900 kilometres north of Winnipeg, becomes accessible only by aircraft or ferry after winter ice roads crossing Split Lake are closed.

But Wastesicoot told CBC News on Friday the ferry doesn’t start until early June despite the lake having open water weeks earlier. As well, the airline servicing the community, Perimeter Aviation, has capped the number of seats for passengers to and from the community at six.  The seat cap limits the number of people able to get to and from medical appointments in major centres like Winnipeg and Thompson. People get stranded away from their homes as a result, the chief said. 

“We’ve been trying to call [Perimeter] and we have so many patients that need to get out and back in. And when they do get out, they get stuck and it falls on us to try and get them back,” said Wastesicoot. He said he’s been unable to speak with anyone at Perimeter to try to find a solution. Charter aircraft are hard to come by, as many of them work only around larger provincial centres, he said.

Runway length too short in summer, airline says 

The air carrier told CBC News in an emailed statement that Transport Canada regulations don’t allow for a full load of York Landing passengers in the summer months.  That’s in part because the community runway is under 3,500 feet, said Carlos Castillo, the carrier’s northern division vice-president.

Castillo said “multiple initiatives” are underway with government, First Nations leaders and other stakeholders to deal with the issue.  In the interim, Castillo said frequency of flights to York Factory would increase. “For example, today we are sending additional aircraft,” Castillo said Friday.

About 460 members of the roughly 1,600-member band live in the community and overcrowding is another major issue, Wastesicoot said.  

“A lot of the kids are staying in one room [and] especially with teenage girls who need their own space … it’s not good for them to be with other kids in the room. So it’s those kinds of things that become depressing for them,” Wastesicoot said. “And maybe we don’t know all the answers as to how this is happening, but we have a very, very good idea as to why this is happening,” Wastesicoot said of the youth suicide problem. 

The lack of access to the northern community compounds things as crisis workers can’t easily get there to help, he said. 

State of emergency

A year ago, York Factory declared a state of emergency after the startup of the provincial ferry was delayed due to repair work being done on the boat.  In March, the community was one of 11 Manitoba First Nations that signed a group declaration of emergency prompted by system-wide deficiencies in public safety, health services and infrastructure. 

A group of people are lined up on one side of a table. An Indigenous man wearing a headdress speaks into a microphone.
Walter Wastesicoot, Grand Chief of the Keewatin Tribal Council, is pictured speaking at a March 23 press conference. He introduced the idea of the prime minister enacting the Emergencies Act to deal with crises on the 11 First Nations represented by the council. (Stephanie Cram/CBC)

Wastesicoot said the small number of people living in the community means government doesn’t see dealing with York Factory’s issues as a priority. CBC News requested comment from both the provincial and federal governments on Friday and did not hear back.

The chief said he traces the community’s troubles back to the late 1950s when it was forced to relocate inland from the shore of the coast of Hudson Bay.  “We have needs,” he said. “But those needs are not being addressed because we have a small population.… We want the government to come to our community and really work with us on all our issues.”

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With files from Brittany Greenslade