03/26/2015 06:00 EDT | Updated 05/26/2015 05:59 EDT

Shamattawa suicides and more attempts shake 'dry' Northern Manitoba community

The northern Manitoba community of Shamattawa is mourning the deaths of four young people in the past six weeks, with concern growing after four more suicide attempts since last Thursday.

Chief Jeff Napoakesik said two young women, 18 and 19 years old, took their own lives last week, one day apart. The remote community also lost two young men to suicide in February.

"It causes a chain reaction," said Napoakesik. "It's a despair our young people have here, and alcohol plays an influence to their thinking, so they make attempts to try and end their lives."

Napoakesik said four other young people attempted suicide following the deaths of the two women.

"A day without an attempt is a blessing to us …. We are always on our guard."

The chief said his community of 1,000 people is devastated. People are coming together to help each other, and the families as best as they can, he added.

Napoakesik said there are always counsellors in the community, but more have been brought in to help.

'I buried my cousins'

Trina Miles said the two men were her cousins. They were 21 and 23 years old.

"In February, they passed a week apart," said Miles. "After burying one of my cousins, another cousin took his own life."

Miles, 21, is a youth worker in Shamattawa and teaches suicide prevention.

​"It takes a lot of energy from me, but I just have to take it a day at a time," she said. "I have a lot of support — the kids I work with, my co-workers and mostly my family."

Miles says drugs, solvents and alcohol are a major problem in her community, which has been declared dry. Suicide attempts spike at this time of the year, she said, because contraband is brought up on the winter road.

Miles said when she was a teenager, she had suicidal thoughts; isolation played a huge role in her negative feelings. That's when she became a youth leader, and everything changed.

"I've been down that road, and I see a lot of these young people going down that road that leads to destruction and poverty, and there is no one there to be a light for them," she said.

"I've always had the desire to be a leader and to help my people."

Miles said her community needs help from the outside and more after-school activities are required to give young people something to do and offer them hope.

Right now, her program runs three times a week and sees up to 50 kids.

Crisis control

Grand Chief David Harper of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) said crisis intervention counsellors arrived in Shamattawa on Sunday and are working with the families, as well as identifying others who may be at risk.

"It's hard to be able to comprehend on what's really happening, but at the same time we have to put our minds together," said Harper.

He said there are 10 counsellors in Shamattawa from AWASIS and the Keewatin Tribal Council. Those workers have gone to the school and met with students and are holding workshops in the evening for community members.

"We have to work fast," Harper said. "We are at the stage where we can't wait until the next victim. We have to do this now."

Harper said MKO will send counsellors and ministers to the religious community for longer-term support.

He said he has also appealed to Health Canada to establish a Crisis Intervention Team for Manitoba. There is one in Ontario that goes into northern or isolated communities when suicides happen.

"They go into the community and help for weeks at a time, not just days, not until the funeral is done," he said, adding that families need support long after they say goodbye to their loved ones.

Health Canada says it provides crisis management and counselling services in Shamattawa First Nation.

The federal department is aware of what's happening in the remote community. Officials said they continue to monitor the situation and are working with their partners to determine any additional supports needed by the community.