05/11/2012 06:57 EDT | Updated 07/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Cowichan State Of Emergency: B.C. First Nation Reeling Over Recent Suicides

VANCOUVER - Leaders of a Vancouver Island First Nation have declared a state of emergency over a recent spate of suicides and attempted suicides.

The Cowichan Tribes, located in Duncan, B.C., on central Vancouver Island, are saying little about the tragedies until a news conference Monday morning. However, tribes' spokeswoman Jenn George said the state of emergency was signed Tuesday during a band council meeting.

"It means the number of attempts are too high," Chief Harvey Alphonse said of the state of emergency in an email to The Canadian Press.

"Unless we receive support from the feds and province, we may lose more community members to what feels like a hopeless situation, and although we have provided some resources, it is very limited and employees are over-taxed with the burden of double duty."

From Feb. 26 to April 26, four First Nations males who were living between Duncan, B.C., and Nanaimo, B.C., committed suicide, said B.C. Corners Service spokeswoman Barbara McLintock.

Three of the four appear to be Cowichan members and were in their 20s and 30s, she said, adding the fourth male was 72 years old.

"I'm not sure we've got them all. I can't guarantee that's all there are because sometimes they're not marked down as aboriginal until later," she said.

McLintock said the coroners service doesn't keep track of f attempted suicides.

Ian Knipe, director of aboriginal health for the Vancouver Island Health Authority, said his agency met with the Cowichan Tribes, other First Nations and the RCMP to discuss the issue during an April 25 meeting.

Knipe said the authority is waiting for the Cowichan to take the lead on the issue but is willing to sit down to learn more about the problem, discuss the tribes' needs and how health officials can help out.

"So at this point, we haven't identified anything specifically because we still have to have those discussions with the Cowichan."

He said the health authority can offer prevention training and education courses.

"I think it's great that the Cowichan are being proactive about this, are trying to come up with a plan and work with other partners, such as VIHA and the RCMP in terms of how to address this, so we're happy to be a part of those planning discussions," he said.

On Vancouver Island, in B.C., and even across Canada, suicide rates among aboriginal populations tend to be higher than in the general population and the causes are complex, said Knipe.

"Often it relates to issues arising from residential schools, from apprehension, from the impact of colonization on First Nations."

Between Christmas 2004 and July 2005, the Ahousaht First Nation, located on the west coast of Vancouver Island, recorded two suicides and more than 65 attempts.

In September 2005, the provincial government announced plans to award a contract worth up to $150,000 to the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council to develop a youth-suicide prevention strategy.

According to their website, the Cowichan Tribes are the single largest First Nation in the province and have more than 3,800 registered members, about half of whom live on the reserve.

Although the band's traditional territory is about 375,000 hectares, its nine reserves total 2,400 hectares.

The Cowichan are governed by a chief and 12 councillors under the Indian Act.