Life / Health

Trudeau calls First Nations suicides a 'tragedy' after death of 10-year-old

First Nations officials said last week that there had been numerous suicide attempts this month and that more than 20 youths were considered at risk.

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde speaks during a press conference in Gatineau, Quebec on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2016. Bellegarde, who is from Saskatchewan, has said suicides are happening far too often in northern communities.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde speaks during a press conference in Gatineau, Quebec on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2016. Bellegarde, who is from Saskatchewan, has said suicides are happening far too often in northern communities.

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the recent rash of suicides in northern Saskatchewan is a tragedy.

Speaking to reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday, Trudeau said it's all too common for young indigenous people to take their own lives.

"It's obviously a tremendous tragedy in Saskatchewan that happens all too often, too many young people losing their lives," Trudeau said. "We continue to be committed to working with indigenous communities across the country to deal with this ever-occurring tragedy."

His comments came after a 10-year-old child committed suicide in Deschambault Lake, about 500 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon. Two girls from Stanley Mission and one from La Ronge — all between the ages of 12 and 14 — also committed suicide earlier this month.

First Nations officials said last week that there had been numerous suicide attempts this month and that more than 20 youths were considered at risk.

"4th girl takes own life in northern Saskatchewan. 10 years old," Health Minister Jane Philpott wrote on Twitter. "Nothing in my job more important than this issue."

Grand Chief Ron Michel of the Prince Albert Grand Council said he wants dozens of northern communities involved in the council to talk to their young residents and create a plan to stop suicides.

Peter Beatty, chief of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, is from Deschambault Lake and said it's hard dealing with suicides of people so young.

"They have so much life to live and so much to look forward to," he said. "I think we have to come to terms with what’s happening in our First Nations communities because a lot of things lead to that."

Beatty also said word about suicides travels fast through social media, which makes it important for crisis teams to immediately deploy to work with the friends of young people who take their own lives. He said the grand council has those resources available.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said the issue of suicides in the North has been a top concern for local leaders and the provincial government for some years.

"We have moved through the health region and through the ministries proper to provide better support, improved support," he told the legislature. "Clearly more needs to be done."

"Mr. Speaker, we'll continue to respond to these suicides and work very, very hard with local leadership to ensure that they stop."

Wall said there will be meeting with the Lac La Ronge band through the Northern Lights School District later this month.

The provincial government has said some youth considered at risk of killing themselves were sent to Prince Albert to be assessed by a psychiatrist, while others were sent home with a safety plan and appropriate supports.

Health Canada issued a statement last week saying 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.

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde, who is from Saskatchewan, has said suicides are happening far too often in northern communities.

He said the aboriginal youth suicide rate is five times the national average.

Earlier this year, a string of suicide attempts in Attawapiskat in northern Ontario garnered international media attention.

— With files from MBC and Jennifer Graham in Regina