OTTAWA - Two recent deaths among the members of the Neskantaga First Nation have prompted the remote northern Ontario community to declare a state of emergency in the hope of getting help to prevent the spread of suicide.
The First Nation northeast of Thunder Bay has seen two of its members die over the last two weeks, throwing the fragile community of 300 into grief and fear for the stability of other families.
Chief Peter Moonias said that just as the community was burying the first victim — a man in his 30s — they learned of the death of a 19-year-old from Neskantaga living in Thunder Bay.
Moonias said police have yet to declare the second death a suicide, but he suspects they soon will.
The problems come just a few months after another young man took his life there in December, a tragedy that prompted the community to close ranks and put its youth on suicide watch to prevent additional deaths.
"One suicide, we could have handled. ... Not easily, but we could have come back," said Moonias.
But the suicides are coming so close together that almost no one in the community of about 300 has been left untouched, he said. And now, they can't cope.
"Now we have nothing left. We have hardly anybody who is not affected in the community. The community situation right now is in a state of shock. A lot of them are wondering what will happen next. They live in fear that something else will happen."
Community and regional leaders decided to declare the state of emergency Wednesday to get help from the Red Cross and the Ontario government's emergency management office.
Moonias said he was also hoping for help from any level of government in putting together a long-term plan that will confront Neskantaga's serious problems with addiction to prescription drugs.
He's also hoping that other First Nations will heed Neskantaga's cry for help.
"It will be a devastating thing for my people if nobody listens. Like we don't exist, you know?"
The Ojibway chief estimates that more than half the community's adults are addicted to OxyContin or other painkillers.
The limited health care resources made available to Neskantaga to deal with addictions have been insufficient and have not worked well, Moonias added.
"Let's help these young people," he said. "I don't want this to continue another day, another month."
Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq promised the community the help they need.
"Our hearts go out to those who have lost friends and loved ones to suicide," she said in a statement Wednesday.
"Health Canada will work closely with the community and send both additional nursing and counselling staff to assist during this difficult time."
The suicide rate in Neskantaga and surrounding First Nations is far higher than the national average, as communities struggle to deal with isolation, drug and alcohol addictions, poverty, poor housing and a loss of cultural identity.
Now, natural resource companies and the federal and provincial governments have taken a new interest in the community's health as they seek to develop the region for mining. The massive and pristine Ring of Fire is rich with base metals, but First Nations need to be supportive of mining development in order for it to go ahead. They also need to be healthy in order to form a work force.
Last year, Health Canada added some extra funding to deal with addictions in the Ring of Fire region.
But relapses are frequent, and the pace of suicide and attempted suicide has been on the increase, Moonias said.
Normally, a declaration of emergency by a First Nation triggers action by Emergency Management Ontario, which is in turn reimbursed and supported by Aboriginal Affairs in Ottawa.
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