Canada holds emergency debate on suicides in indigenous community | News | DW | 13.04.2016
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Canada holds emergency debate on suicides in indigenous community

Canada's parliament held an emergency debate on a suicide crisis in a remote indigenous community. Eleven people, nine of them minors, attempted suicide in April, and more than a dozen youths made a suicide pact.

Lawmaker Charlie Angus said in Parliament that the suicide crisis in a remote part of Canada had shocked the world. His constituency of Attawapiskat - with a population of only 2,000 - declared a state of emergency in early April after a string of suicide attempts.

There have been about 100 suicide attempts there since September 2015, resulting in at least one death. Declaring a state of emergency is, however, largely a symbolic move and does not legally oblige Ottawa to take action.

Anna Betty Achneepineskum of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, an organization which represents 49 indigenous communities in Northern Ontario, said that police had brought 13 youths, including a nine-year-old, to a hospital early in the week for an evaluation, after they were overheard making a suicide pact. According to authorities, 18 additional people - including a crisis coordinator, two youth support workers and a psychologist - have been deployed as temporary crisis relief. Some have voiced criticism that there may be no long-term plan to end the crisis.

Health minister speaks out

Canada's Health Minister Jane Philpott said the suicide rate among Canadian indigenous young was among the highest in the world, noting that young indigenous males in Canada were 10 times more likely to die by suicide than other young Canadian males. She added that the rate for females was more than 21 times higher.

Philpott said that the suicide rate was a "staggering reality and completely unacceptable."

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called the crisis "heartbreaking" and vowed that the government would work to improve living conditions for all indigenous peoples.

His recent federal budget promised billions of dollars in aid: Trudeau's Liberal government pledged an extra $6.54 billion (5.75 billion euros) over five years to help the aboriginal population deal with its dire living conditions. However, some say that more needs to be done than just investing money in the communities.

Dire conditions for indigenous peoples

The incident shocked Canada, even though there is a relatively high prevalence of tragedies involving the country's 1.4 million indigenous people, who make up about four percent of Canada's population. Many live in poverty, have a lower life expectancy than other Canadians and are more often victims of violent crime.

Community leaders including tribal chiefs have complained about a lack of money for tribal education and the poor conditions on reserves. Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation said in a telephone interview that things were so bad that half of the communities there did not have clean drinking water.

The events in Attawapiskat are, however, not isolated instances. In Cross Lake, Manitoba, roughly 500 kilometers (300 miles) east of Attawapiskat, dozens of people have also attempted suicide this year. Teenagers there also talked about group suicide attempts before trying to kill themselves separately.

ss/rc (AP, Reuters)

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