New mental health workers arrived in Pikangikum First Nation on Tuesday to help hundreds of people seeking support in the northern Ontario community, Health Minister Jane Philpott says.
Additional nurses are also being sent to the reserve that has long struggled with a high prevalence of suicide including — most recently, the deaths of two girls.
Health Canada is working with other departments and provincial ministries to co-ordinate an immediate response following the recent deaths, Philpott added, noting she had a conference call Tuesday with members of the community, including the chief, who are "exhausted and shaken" as they try to address the situation and plan funerals.
"There have been literally hundreds of people in this one community alone that have come forward asking for counselling," Philpott said in an interview. "We are needing ... to supply ... safe spaces for people to receive counselling, looking at accommodations for health workers who are going into the community."
Many frontline workers and community members in other reserves are also experiencing a high-degree of burnout due to the suicide crisis, said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, who leads an umbrella organization representing 49 First Nation communities in northern Ontario.
Communities including Wapekeka First Nation have also struggled to tackle the issue of youth suicide in recent months.
"That's something that is unfortunately not unique to Pikangikum," Fiddler said. "That's a reality for many of our communities and we can't sustain the current ways of trying to address this."
Fiddler said he plans to address the push for long-term solutions at a meeting in Ottawa next Monday with Philpott and Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins, noting communities must find a way to move beyond living crisis to crisis.
Each suicide is different, he said, and individuals factors need to be examined by police to expose root causes.
Fiddler and others have linked the prevalence of prevalent sexual abuse in northern Ontario communities and the deaths of young people in those communities, particularly young women.
Indeed, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said Tuesday that sexual and physical abuse, incest, poverty, overcrowding in homes and low levels of education all contribute to a loss of hope in some First Nation communities.
"Within that mix ... how do young people see that there's a way through that?" Bellegarde said in an interview, noting bureaucratic red tape often stands in the way of delivering mental health services.
"The message that I try to get to all of our young people is 'Hey, you are valued, you are important, you are special, you have a purpose'."
Philpott said Tuesday she was struck by a recent discussion that she heard during a visit to Wunnumin Lake First Nation, also located in northern Ontario, where the chief and community members openly discussed widespread sexual abuse at a community meeting.
"The chief himself brought up the topic and others spoke to it including nurses and health workers who were in the room," Philpott said.
"My sense would be from my understanding of the issue is when it is ... brought out in the open and discussed more openly, it gives courage to people who have been abused to come forward and seek counselling."