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Indigenous minister says more must be done to support First Nations mental health

Last Updated May 19, 2021 at 6:36 pm MDT

WINNIPEG (CityNews) – The Shamattawa First Nation, about 745KM northeast of Winnipeg, has entered a local state of emergency.

Chief Redhead is calling for more support after a seven-year-old child was left in critical condition following a suicide attempt.

“He is responsive and now awake,” explained Chief Redhead. “My main concern right now is the children of the community, we want to make sure they have the supports in place if they are feeling they need help.”

“The last 24 hours have been chaotic,” said Chief Eric Redhead.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says urgent steps need to be taken to support the community now, but there must also be longer-term strategies. Adding he doesn’t think enough is being done to support mental wellness in Canada’s Aboriginal communities.

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“The particular age of the youth in question is especially heartbreaking,” the minister said during a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday.

The community has reported an uptick in suicide attempts and mental-health crises during the pandemic.

Chief Redhead says a single mother of four, who was his sister, took her own life on May 9. A 19-year-old died by suicide on May 10 and on Monday, a 7-year-old attempted suicide and is now at Children’s Hospital in Winnipeg.

It’s not the first time the Shamattawa First Nation declared a state of emergency. Back in 2016, a state of emergency was called following four suicides in just a couple of weeks.

Redhead said health-care staff are exhausted, especially after the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic’s second wave.

Canadian Forces members were dispatched to Shamattawa in December at a time when about one-third of the community’s population of 1,300 had tested positive for the virus.

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Mobile Crisis teams from the Keewatin Tribal Council and Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak have arrived in the fly-in community with additional supports.

“We have two members going out right now. We provide mental health counselling to any of the 63 first nations in Manitoba. We provide mental health support counselling,” said Justin Courchene, mobile response team manager.

The federal government is sending child and adolescent mental health therapists to the community, but one youth advocate who has been helping children in Shamattawa for over 20 years, says this isn’t enough.

“What I have experienced in the past, the feds have always said they would increase assistance, but it never comes. Outside personnel will come for a day or two and then leave. There are not enough resources to address this situation on a consistence basis,” explained Darryle Schweder, youth advocate, Shamattawa First Nation.

Schweder says this crisis is happening because of the environment the youth are living with in Shamattawa, and he’s unsure how the community will get out of this.

A sentiment Miller echoed, saying a lack of culturally relevant mental-health services in many Indigenous communities has been an ongoing problem, but it’s been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“It’s clear that we are, as a country, not dealing with mental health and suicide in a way that is yielding the results that we all would like to see.”

“All levels of government need to work on solutions that must also address housing, education and infrastructure gaps on First Nations,” Miller said.

Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, tweeted that Indigenous communities must have on-the-ground support, especially during the pandemic.

“The impacts of COVID-19 have taken an emotional toll on many, and during a difficult time, I offer support to Shamattawa and anyone struggling,” Bellegarde said.

The First Nation will be having a candlelight vigil within the next few days to restore hope and faith.

“It’s a difficult time for Shamattawa and our members. If you are feeling you need to talk someone, there are resources in the community,” said Chief Redhead. “Reach out to them, reach out to your family and friends. We are in this together and we will come out of this together.”

-With files from the Canadian Press