NationTalk – CKOM News: Chief Margaret Bear of the Ochapowace First Nation remembers sitting in the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations’ previous building three years ago, filled with emotion and sharing much of the plight her community is facing today.
“I expressed some tears,” Bear said of that day.
The heavy emotions came then as a result of a rash of suicides on the Ochapowace First Nation, Bear said. She remembered David Pratt, now first vice chief of the FSIN, putting a calming hand on her shoulder as he stood behind her.
Reliving the emotion of that day on Monday was important for Bear. Gathered alongside Pratt, Chief Ronald Mitsuing, Headwoman Audrey Isaac and Health Quality Council CEO Tracey Sherin, Bear said her community, like other First Nations in the province, are still in distress over suicide.
Mitsuing, Chief of the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation in Loon Lake, said he also sat in a very similar setting two years, also asking for funding from governments to help First Nations communities like his.
Three years ago, Mitsuing’s community was in a state of crisis because of suicide. Two years ago, he said the Canadian government signed a letter of commitment to help their communities and others in similar situations.
He said some Health Canada therapists have come to help — something he is very grateful for — but no further assistance has been given. “I still have the hurt that I had back then,” Mitsuing said.
Sherin said the research that went into the First Nations report on self-harm and suicide showed significant disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations in the province.
Some of the key findings in the report, entitled “Self-Harm and Suicide in First Nations Communities in Saskatchewan,” indicated:
- First Nation males are five times more likely to be hospitalized for harming themselves than their non-First Nation counterparts. That number rose to nine times more for First Nation females and 10 times more for First Nation females under the age of 15.
- First Nation men were also found to die three times more by suicide than their non-First Nation counterparts. Suicide rates among First Nation women were six times more than non-First Nation women.
Sherin said she hopes the interviews and research conducted for the study will lead to real change for First Nation communities.
While it traditionally has been younger people suffering the most from mental illness and suicide, Mitsuing said he’s starting to see it creep into the lives and minds of adults more, too. Families that were rocked by suicide during the state of emergency their communities declared years ago are “hurting still to this day” and feeling their pain immensely, Bear said.
She called life a gift, something beautiful and welcome. Suicide is a deep contrast to that joy. The pain from suicide is leading more to contemplate it as a way out, too. Bear called it a devastating cycle.
Her own sister died by suicide in 1985. “We never, ever forget a loved one who takes their life (by) suicide,” Bear said. “We never, ever get over it, however, we find ways to cope with it.” Those mechanisms can be healthy or not, Bear shared.
Suicidal ideations aren’t the only problem facing Indigenous communities across the province. Bear highlighted addictions, gang involvement and crime as other significant issues First Nations are grappling with at the same time. “So (many) meth problems — it’s another pandemic in itself, that one,” Mitsuing said.
Having had his own personal struggles with mental health, Mitsuing also has people regularly coming to him with their own suicidal thoughts and worries. It’s something he tries to help with but he is not trained to handle it. “It hurts in the whole community when we lose people,” Mitsuing said, adding friends of his have taken their own lives.
As Chief, Bear said it’s her responsibility to bury people who die by suicide. She said that responsibility is very difficult. While she understands and respects the circle of life, such as an Elder passing in a community, suicide is different. “When one takes their life through suicide, that brings a stop to their lifecycle and that is very difficult for us,” Bear shared.
Isaac, who oversees health and wellness for the Ochapowace First Nation, said suicide has heavily impacted their communities, families and leadership. She said people have all had to grapple with the harm of suicide and seek healing. Isaac said her community has a suicide crisis line, mental health therapists, addictions workers and other supports. Yet about a month ago, another young man took his own life.
Pain and anger are coming out, and emotional distress stemming from trauma is causing further suffering for Indigenous people, Isaac shared. But there’s also a fear to seek out help with healing.
It prompts the question: “How does one move forward without committing suicide?” Isaac asked.
Reliance on partnerships
In the interest of doing just that, the FSIN and First Nation communities are calling on their Treaty partner, the federal government, to make good on its commitment to help. The FSIN is also calling on the Saskatchewan government.
From both, Bear said they’re hoping for financial resources for their communities.
Bear asked for governments and organizations to come together with First Nations in a good way — in partnership — to deal with the crises she said are facing their communities. Mitsuing is hoping the federal and provincial governments will get to work on the problem before it escalates even further.
A lack of capacity is one of the greatest concerns, Bear explained. She said social services staff are overworked trying to care for all the people who need help, while treatment centres in the province are busy with wait times for people who need assistance immediately.
The life promotion report, as Bear called it, offers statistics on suicide with respect to First Nation communities and will assist communities with developing plans of action that will work for them to address the painful cycles of self-harm and suicide.
Bear said all communities are unique and need different levels of help. In her own community, Bear would like to see a centre of excellence developed to support people and offer them tools to get them through their pain — whether that be addictions or mental health issues.
Elders are working hard and tiring as they try to help their communities with the demand on them for assistance right now, Bear shared.
Isaac said it’s important for each community to have a say and to take responsibility for how their people can heal. Addictions can be overwhelming and coming out of a two-plus-year pandemic, people are struggling even more.
Pratt said the FSIN is calling on the governments to recognize the alarming statistics in the report — which found the rate of suicide is five times higher amongst Saskatchewan’s First Nations people compared to the non-First Nations population — and the other problems contributing to distress in their communities.
Pratt said the problems aren’t the fault of anyone today, not even the current government. “But it’s our job to address it,” he said, noting that includes making critical investments to create change.
He wants to see the previous letter of commitment signed by the federal government honoured and for the feds to follow through on action to assist the FSIN in dealing with this situation. “We’re ready to go,” Pratt said, indicating communities are just waiting for partnership to move forward.
Pratt also noted the provincial government’s surplus and the money it should have access to invest in concerns like that of their greatest resource — the Saskatchewan people.
Further, Bear wants to see programs culturally appropriate to her community that protect their culture and language implemented.
Land-based learning, for example, helps connect students with the land and teaches respect for Mother Earth, Bear said. It puts students in touch with where they came from, prior to colonization. “We had a way of life back then … it was a strong family kinship,” Bear shared.
Isaac also highlighted a need for clinical nurses to come and assist communities. “We know the needs of our community. We know the issues of our community,” Isaac said, emphasizing that partnerships with others can help bring their people together again in a healthier way.
Pratt does feel hopeful, though, even with such change needed in communities.
He said work has already been done in bringing teenage First Nation students together for land-based education, connecting them to the land and Elders.
Calling it “just one practical example,” Pratt said funding that goes to communities to deal with the problems of suicide and self-harm can see success through efforts like this to reconnect with people and bring healing.
He wants to see the work happen now, however, so, in five years, the statistics will paint a much brighter future for First Nations communities in the province.