More than 100 people have attempted suicide in this tiny Canadian community since September

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Two boys walk past substandard housing on their way to play hockey in Attawapiskat, Ontario, on December 17, 2011.
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Reuters/Frank Gunn

A spate of more than 100 suicide attempts have devastated the Canadian aboriginal community of Attawapiskat over the last nine months.

Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh declared a state of emergency last weekend after 11 suicide attempts occurred on Saturday alone. There have been more than 100 attempts and at least one death since September, Shisheesh told CBC.

There are numerous possible explanations for the crisis. Like many other First Nations communities in Canada, Attawapiskat has suffered in recent years from infrastructural problems such as drinking-water and housing shortages, sewage backups, and floods.

Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day told Business Insider that Attawapiskat’s poverty and lack of economic opportunities are to blame for the overwhelming hopelessness many residents feel toward the future. Without the resources available to other Canadians, problems such as addiction, violence, and depression pervade the populations.

“Other Canadians have clean, potable drinking water. They’re not living in overcrowded situations, they’ve got food security, they’ve got summer employment,” he said. “You can see how education, careers, and no infrastructure – no economy – can certainly lead to a deep sense of hopelessness among the young people.”

The poverty in Attawapiskat is stark. The community’s unemployment rate hovers around 80%, while its graduation rate is around 30%, according to media reports.

Canada’s House of Commons convened in an emergency debate on Tuesday evening to discuss the suicide crisis, which has brought international attention to the remote community of 2,000 in northern Ontario.

“There is nothing more devastating than realizing someone has reached the point of no hope,” Minister of Health Jane Philpott said at the House of Commons debate. “Tonight has to be a turning point for us as a country in order for us to decide together that we will do better.”

Charlie Angus, the member of Parliament for the district that includes Attawapiskat, said at the debate that the community’s crisis has “shocked the world,” leaving Canadians and non-Canadians wondering “how a country as rich as Canada can leave so many young children and young people behind.”

“Will this minister commit to a total overhaul to ensure that every child in this country has the mental-health supports that they need to have hope and a positive future?” he said, referring to Philpott.

In one quote read to the legislators by Parliament member Todd Doherty, Shisheesh said that he is homeless and implored them to direct resources to the beleaguered community.

“How would you feel if you were leading Attawapiskat and you didn’t have a home?” he said. “I feel for my people. I know what they are going through. When you don’t have a nice home, a nice place to sleep … it gets depressing.”

Health Canada dispatched a crisis team of 18 health workers, mental-health workers, and police officers to Attawapiskat, officials told media on Tuesday.

On Monday night, police broke up a suicide pact made by 13 youths, the youngest of whom was 9. When they were brought to the local hospital for evaluation and treatment, it was too full from other patients who had attempted suicide, according to the Canadian Press (CP). Half of the youths were instead brought to jail as they awaited treatment, Anna Betty Achneepineskum of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation told CP.

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A tattered Canadian flag flies over a teepee in Attawapiskat, Ontario, on December 17, 2011.
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Reuters/Frank Gunn

Day said that the despair plaguing the Attawapiskat youths today can be traced back 140 years to Canada’s 1876 Indian Act, a set of laws and policies that govern First Nations communities. The act, which marked its anniversary on Tuesday, may as well be called “Canada’s apartheid” for the damage and oppression it has inflicted upon the country’s aboriginal population, Day said.

The act establishes government control over much of First Nations life, including land and resources, but is perhaps most commonly known for its imposition of residential schools. Under the school system, tens of thousands of First Nations children were compelled to attend schools designed to make them forget their languages and cultures. In 2008, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized for the schools, where many students suffered abuse.

Attawapiskat’s abject poverty is striking considering that a lucrative diamond mine sits only 55 miles from the community. The Victor Mine, operated by De Beers and yielding 600,000 carats of diamonds per year, according to the Ontario government, provides some employment and royalties to Attawapiskat. But Day said that 80% of the reserve’s revenues are government-controlled and are often reallocated when any excess money is found. Under the Indian Act, the federal government controls First Nations’ revenues.

Day argues that the treaties signed by First Nations were meant to further economic development, but instead they reap little wealth from those arrangements.

“Our people entered into these treaties in good faith, as business partners to share the land and to share the wealth and resources,” he said. “Well, why is it that our people are starving? Why are they killing themselves? Why are they stuck in overcrowded situations? And why can’t they have access to a shared benefit from the wealth of those lands?”

As of Wednesday, the federal government has dispatched Health Canada’s crisis team and the Ontario government has pledged up to $2 million to support long-term suicide-prevention solutions and healthcare staff. It is likely that the federal government will announce more in coming days, after a scheduled meeting takes place on Thursday between at least four aboriginal leaders and Commons’ indigenous-affairs committee.

Day says that the long-term solution will require the government to provide more resources to First Nations communities as well as give them more authority over their own jurisdictions and, ultimately, the right to self-determination.

“We can throw money about here all we like, but we’re still going to see people that feel hopelessness,” Day said. “We’ve got to deal with the broader issues, the bigger infrastructure issues. Those are going to allow First Nations to participate in society.”