The Cree government of Pimicikamak has declared a state of emergency after a number of suicides in the Northern Manitoba community of Cross Lake. An emergency declaration will likely trigger a short-term emergency response and while immediate mental health services and community crisis supports are needed, more attention to the root causes of despair, hopelessness, and exclusion is required to effectively address Aboriginal suicide.
Suicide is not a sudden problem in Aboriginal communities. Suicide rates for children under 15 in some First Nations is more than 50 times the national average, with many studies citing suicide among Aboriginal Canadians as the highest in the world. Many point to colonialism, residential schools, loss of language and culture, and substance abuse. Others, including Sheila North Wilson, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, point to poverty and lack of opportunity as key factors.
North Wilson says it’s frustrating to see poverty and hopelessness in a community like Cross Lake, which has had a hydroelectric dam right next door for decades. It’s the same for several other communities across Canada. “Resources flowing from our territories are not being shared with our people,” she says. “We’re still the poorest in our nation and it shouldn’t be this way. We need comprehensive solutions to start addressing poverty in our communities,” she says, pointing to…”the lack of resources, the lack of opportunities for our young people.”
Persistent poverty only leads to exclusion and desperation – the type of despair that can make suicide a viable option as an alternative to hopelessness. By addressing the abject poverty, problems that have plagued many individuals and communities (inadequate housing, poor sanitation, lack of safe drinking water, substance abuse, infectious and chronic health conditions, food insecurity, etc.) can start to be solved, and currently disillusioned youth have a chance to envision a life worth living.
By labelling Aboriginal suicide as an emergency crisis, the short-term Band-aid fix is likely to fall off and the same communities will face the same crisis year after year. The cost is too high. It seems kind of obvious that longer-term investments in poverty reduction, would over time lower rates of suicide and other physical, mental, spiritual and emotional health problems will decrease.
How might have things looked differently in Cross Lake had the hydroelectric dam been operated “with” the local First Nation community, rather than “beside” it? What would jobs at and around the hydro generation plant meant for Cross Lake members? In 2015, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger made a speech to the Cross Lake First Nation, apologizing for the damage hydro-electric development has done to their traditional land, way of life and cultural identity. More than a year later Cross Lake and other affected communities are still waiting for the follow through on this apology.
Reconciliation has to be more than an apology – it needs to be something that can be mobilized, activated, set in motion. The hydro project next door to Cross Lake illustrates an enormous capital investment with little equity accruing to the local community.
Income level is seen widely as the most important determinant of one’s health. More equal income distribution has proven to be a reliable predictor of the health of a society. (We highly recommend The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, if you are interested in a sound perspective on income inequality). By narrowing the income gap, Canadians from coast to coast to coast from all walks of life stand to reap the benefits in the long-term.
We Terrapins believe access to capital at the level of individual entrepreneurs is an important step towards improving the health of individuals and communities and economies. Huge infrastructure projects need labour, suppliers, hotels, roads, haircuts, need hard hats, guitars, sandwiches. Aboriginal Finance Institutes (AFIs) are perfectly placed to support these grass roots economic developments fostering community economic development and social license for proponents. Our work tracks social and economic outcomes of loans made by AFIs to Aboriginal loan clients starting or growing businesses – early findings are promising. Our goal is to make Social Finance work better – for the health and wellbeing of all Canadians.
What can you do? Write a letter to your local Member of Parliament and ask them what our government can do better to support Aboriginal Developmental Lending in Canada. Write a letter to Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger and ask him what the Manitoba government has done to address mass unemployment and poverty in the Cross Lake First Nation. Share this post on your social media feed and challenge your friends and colleagues to do the same.
Written by Trace MacKay, co-founder & evaluation lead, Terrapin Social Finance