Youth suicide “epidemic” ravages northern Saskatchewan
By Bernadette Wagner
About 40 teens have attempted suicide in the past 18 months in the northern Saskatchewan community of La Loche. More than half have died.
“It’s an epidemic,” says Laura Petschulat, a high school teacher at La Loche Community School. “They’ve lost hope.”
The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) cites suicide as the leading cause of death among First Nations people between the ages of 10 and 24.
“When young people lose hope, suicide becomes a reality,” says Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) Vice-Chief Glen Pratt. “Too many of our children experience tragedy in their lives and that injures the spirit.”
Pratt says the current system is set up to make First Nations fail. “Our traditional First Nations health system has been oppressed,” he says. “Western medicine is very tokenized toward First Nations. We need to find a way to give them strength and not label them as sick.”
“It’s tragic,” says Warren McCall, NDP critic for First Nations and Métis Affairs, referring to the high rate of suicide among Aboriginal youth. “It’s the cutting edge of what the province is doing wrong.”
Minister Responsible for First Nations and Métis Affairs June Draude declined to comment on this story. Draude is also the minister responsible for Northern Affairs.
On the Clearwater River Dene Nation just a mile outside La Loche, 70 per cent of the 1,400 band members living on the reserve are under the age of 18. In the village of La Loche, about 50 per cent of the residents are under 18. In both communities, many families live 10 or more to a house, some of which are substandard. Alcohol and drug abuse, physical and sexual violence and teen pregnancy rates are high. The welfare rate sits around 70 per cent.
“It’s hard to find positive role models in a community that’s still coping with the legacy of residential schools and colonialism,” says McCall. “The community lacks the resources for positive change. There are hugely limited resources in the north.”
Vice-Chief Pratt says there are role models in every community but sometimes kids choose the wrong ones. Young people and elders don’t always connect the way they should.
“There has got to be a revival of First Nations medicine,” he added.
Pratt says the FSIN is encouraging that revival. This past winter, it brought together 300 youth from across the province for a suicide prevention conference in Saskatoon. Survivors of suicide spoke about their “second chance at life.” Youth had opportunities to learn about the traditional ways from Elders and to share their own stories.
According to Pratt, the suicide prevention strategy in Saskatchewan lacks a co-ordinated approach. His organization is calling for a youth forum on the matter. “We need a strategy built by youth themselves and supported by partnerships with youth, First Nations elders, schools and the health system. We need to invite youth to circles,” he says.
Some suggest that northern development, including a road connecting La Loche to Fort MacLeod, Alberta, is the key to fixing the problems in northern communities, but Petschulat disagrees. “A lot of people here think that will only bring drugs and prostitution,” she says. “There are already too many problems here.”
Residents also wonder how development in the future will help the youth now.
“It’s hard for these kids to avoid gangs and drugs, alcoholism and abuse,” says one resident who asked not to be named. “They live with abuse, alcoholism, poverty and can’t escape it. Despite how bad it is, this is where the people they love live.”
NDP Health Critic Judy Junor wants to know what the Sask Party government is doing about the situation in La Loche. “What immediate programs are they putting in place to stop this cycle of hopelessness?” she asks.
Health Minister Don McMorris did not respond to requests for comment.
On World Suicide Prevention Day in September 2008, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine called for a doubling of the number of suicide prevention projects taking place in First Nations communities. One hundred and forty projects are ongoing at the present time. La Loche is not currently a site for one of those projects.
In the meantime, Petschulat says that the only hope some troubled youth have is that someone will post a video featuring images of the youth and a favourite song or two on YouTube after their death.
“Still,” says Vice-Chief Pratt, “many young people are thriving despite the injustices their people face – poverty, racism, oppression. The stronger the spirit, the stronger the nation, the stronger the youth.”
c. 2009 Bernadette Wagner
Sidebar: Holistic health & suicide prevention
A federal government publication, Acting On What We Know: Preventing Youth Suicide in First Nations, suggests that prevention programs are most successful when they bring together health, school and community.
In First Nations communities where cultural traditions have been lost, “the development of programs to transmit traditional knowledge and values, usually by respected elders, is also a crucial component of any suicide prevention program,” the report suggests.
At their recent conference on health issues, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations held sessions on Shiatsu Therapy and the Bowen Method – two methods of healing which are more holistic than western medicine. Both are based in the belief that the human body has an innate ability to heal itself.
Shiatsu is hands-on, finger-pressure therapy, which has evolved from aspects of Japanese massage traditions, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Western anatomy and physiology and works to release blocked energy in the body.
The Bowen Method stimulates a sense of deep relaxation, which acts on the nervous system to create metabolic equilibrium at the cellular level. This resets the autonomic nervous system and frees the body to find its own natural balance. By embracing not only the psychological or the physical, the treatments can work on the whole individual.
First Nations medicine is similar in that it also works on the whole individual by looking at the physical, the psycho-emotional, the cultural and the spiritual. According to FSIN Vice-Chief Glen Pratt, “The spiritual is the foundation for the other three. Once we become strong in spirit . . . we become very balanced in a healthy way.”
c. 2009 Bernadette Wagner