October 14, 2016 - 4:29 PM
LAC LA RONGE, Sask. - Aboriginal leaders and the prime minister say a crisis is unfolding in northern Saskatchewan after three young girls took their own lives and there are fears more young people are at risk.
Two girls from Stanley Mission committed suicide last week and a third girl from La Ronge, who had been in hospital after an attempt to kill herself, died in recent days. All were between the ages of 12 and 14.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the issue of youth suicides on reserves has gone on for far too long.
"We are working together with the government of Saskatchewan and others to ensure that we can put an end to the tragedy of young people taking their lives," Trudeau said Friday while in Medicine Hat, Alta.
"It's something that has to stop."
The communities are part of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, where Chief Tammy Cook-Searson called the deaths heartbreaking.
"I think everyone is on edge right now, not knowing when you are going to get the call," Cook-Searson told MBC News.
"The parents are worried because we have a number of youth who have been identified as high risk — not just in Stanley Mission, but in other communities."
Cook-Searson said there have also been nine suicide attempts in the past week and more than 20 youths are considered at risk.
The provincial government said some of the higher-risk youth were sent to Prince Albert to be assessed by a psychiatrist, while the others were sent home with a safety plan and appropriate supports after they were assessed by a health professional.
Greg Ottenbreit, Saskatchewan's minister of rural and remote health, said it's a tragic situation and helping the community is a priority.
"Everybody is very attentive to the situation and supporting them as best as we can," he said.
Ottenbreit also said the health board chair has told him that the community is in touch with parents because of speculation of a suicide pact.
Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde, who is from Saskatchewan, said suicides are happening far too often in northern communities.
The aboriginal youth suicide rate is five times the national average, said Bellegarde. Earlier this year, a string of suicide attempts garnered international media attention in Attawapiskat in northern Ontario.
"There's a sense of hopelessness, that's what's going on," Bellegarde said from Vancouver.
He questioned where wellness and recreation supports are for those communities.
"Obviously not enough hope is being provided for our young ones if they're looking at taking their lives. So it's a crisis."
Health Canada said in a statement that it has been in touch with Cook-Searson and others in Stanley Mission about providing mental health therapists. It will help fund costs for three mental health therapists to provide counselling to at-risk youth on Fridays and Saturdays until the end of December.
But the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, said Health Canada should have had extra supports in place a long time ago.
"But the point is we're here now and what do we do now in this present day and age?" vice-chief Bob Merasty told CJWW.
Merasty said support for youth contemplating suicide has to be more than just the clinical help they are currently receiving.
The focus has to change to being proactive, affirming youth of their value and building up their confidence so they walk proudly and embrace their culture and spirituality, he said.
— By Jennifer Graham in Regina, with files from MBC and CJWW
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016