Suicide attempts rise in Canada aboriginal community in crisis

Youths from three First Nations communities cross the frozen Attawapiskat river during a march on April 7, 2016, in support of efforts to tackle a sharp rise in suicide rates, in Attawapiskat, Ontario, in this picture provided by Jackie Hookimaw-Witt. REUTERS/Jackie Hookimaw-Witt/Handout via Reuters

By Ethan Lou TORONTO (Reuters) - Five children tried to take their own lives Friday evening in a Canadian aboriginal community, its chief said, following other attempted suicides after he had declared a state of emergency over repeated such incidents. Chief Bruce Shisheesh of the Attawapiskat First Nation in the province of Ontario confirmed the news in a telephone conversation on Saturday. He said "a few" people tried taking their own lives in the community of 2,000 in the days before Friday, though he declined to go into specific numbers. Those incidents are in addition to the dozen or so teenagers who attempted suicide on Monday. The attempts came after Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency last Saturday, in response to 11 of its members attempting suicide in one weekend and 28 trying to do so in March. Shisheesh declined to go into the details of the cases, citing privacy. Canada's 1.4 million aboriginals have higher levels of poverty and a lower life expectancy than other Canadians. Health Minister Jane Philpott has said the suicide rates among aboriginal youth were at least 10 times higher than for the general population of young people. Regional and federal governments sent healthcare workers to the community in response to the state of emergency. Canadian legislators held a special parliamentary session Tuesday night to address the suicide attempts. Charlie Angus, a member of parliament whose electoral district includes Attawapiskat, said the attempts on Friday are the result of growing despair in the area due to neglect by the federal government. "We have to get away from our government attitude that they can sit and wait and wait," he said in an interview. Attawapiskat has declared five states of emergency since 2006. It previously sounded the alarm over flooding and sewage issues, poor drinking water and a housing crisis. The problems plaguing aboriginals gained prominence in January when a gunman killed four people in La Loche, Saskatchewan. An aboriginal teenager was charged in the shootings. Shisheesh said federal and provincial governments need to immediately address the community's infrastructure issues and increase mental health support. Local police and Health Canada, the lead federal agency in tackling the suicide attempts, could not be reached immediately for comment. Angus and Canada's Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said in a joint statement on Friday they would visit the community. Shisheesh tweeted hours later: "Busy night at the hospital ... pray for Attawapiskat." (Reporting by Ethan Lou in Toronto; Editing by Mary Milliken and James Dalgleish)