Residents of the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation are on edge and some are holding their children close, as the community of 1,000 people in northwest Saskatchewan looks to address a series of recent suicides.
There have been seven in the last two years alone — three of which occurred in recent weeks, including a 10-year-old girl who took her own life on Thursday.
“Right now it’s really difficult for [the family]. They’re having a tough time comprehending what has happened,” said Joyce Weeseekase, a mental health therapist and aunt of the 10-year-old girl.
“It’s been a really tragic incident that’s happened. Knowing that it’s just a 10-year old child, they still can’t believe it’s really happened.”
Representatives from the band, the province and the federal government have offered their support to families and community members affected by the suicides.
But Weeseekase said it shouldn’t have come to this.
“It should have happened before this,” she said of the supports being offered now.
“I don’t believe it should have [taken] something this tragic in order for that help to come here. It should always be here.”
Weeseekase said she hopes the band’s call for action results in something tangible, rather than “lip service” that the community has seen before.
Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation Chief Ronald Mitsuing said the community is grieving. Mitsuing said the community’s response teams aren’t properly trained and there isn’t a suicide prevention strategy in place.
“The province, they’ve committed to come in and help for a while but we need something long-term, not just to come in here and train and leave,” he said. “That would help us deal with a lot of this stuff.”
Response teams from the Meadow Lake Tribal Council have been dispatched to Makwa Sahgaiehcan, but Mitsuing is worried that once they leave, the band will once again be short-staffed and unequipped to deal with the problem.
For Mitsuing, part of the solution lies in creating a communication course that children and parents would participate in.
“Our parents are very lacking in some places to support their children around here,” he said.
He encouraged children to talk to their parents, elders or leaders about what they are experiencing.
Myriad issues impacting community
According to community leaders, Makwa Sahgaiehcan is plagued by a variety of issues that could be having a ripple effect on the children there.
Mitsuing said the community’s school is overcrowded, which is leading to both online and in-person bullying and a competition for space at the school.
He said the community is planning an expansion to the school, but he asked the province in the meantime to find a way to provide extra portable classrooms for additional space.
Band councillor Tommy Littlespruce’s granddaughter took her own life on July 10, 2019. His grandson also took his own life in 2018.
He speculated that the bullying issues, drug and alcohol abuse in the community and historical factors like colonialism and the impact of residential schools may be at the heart of the problem.
“I hate to use the residential schools, or the colonial effect, but they are a part of what’s going on in our community,” Littlespruce said. “But there is other stuff that is happening.”
He said healing the community and healing the homes will have a ripple effect on the youth in particular.
‘We need answers’
James Kytwayhat said his son was in the same class as the 10-year-old girl who took her life on Thursday.
He called the community’s call for help a desperate need.
“We need answers. We have questions but no answers,” he said. “A lot of people will come together in our community and share that with others, but it’s our kids that need answers.”
Kytwayhat said he’s holding his son close every day and he knows other families are doing the same in their homes.
He echoed the chief’s sentiments that children and parents need to communicate with one another.
“A lot of people need to ask their kid these questions and not wait for them to tell them their problems,” Kytwayhat said.
“Talk with your kids. Listen to them. Ask them questions. It takes a lot for a child to come up to a parent or an adult and tell them ‘I’m being bullied’… just take the time.”
Where to get help:
Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (text) | http://www.crisisservicescanada.ca/ (chat)
In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (phone), Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca.
Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre.
Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310 or chat online at hopeforwellness.ca.
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