A mental health crisis is sweeping its way across Canada, with Indigenous groups facing the brunt of it.
On April 24, the Mikisew Cree First Nation community in Fort Chipewyan declared a state of emergency in response to an increase in suicide among its members. The isolated town, home to roughly 800 people, has seen a significant rise in suicides, particularly in the younger population.
Windspeaker, an Alberta-based Indigenous news publication, cited “approximately eight recent suicide attempts by adults and youth, on top of a couple of adult deaths-by-suicide in the last month” that compelled Chief and Council to declare the state of emergency. Mikisew Chief Billy-Joe Tuccaro issued a video statement calling for “immediate support and long-term sustainable funding” from the provincial and federal governments to address the epidemic. The community has also requested the deployment of a mental health crisis response team to help prevent cluster suicides.
Allan Adam, Chief of the Athabasca First Nation, spoke out on the crisis, stating that youth are among the most affected. He said the remote hamlet is suffering a mental health crisis, exacerbated by addictions to opioids and other drugs, as people suffering from depression often turn to substance abuse. The community is grappling with the devastating impact of suicide and is calling on government authorities to provide assistance to prevent further tragedies. “It’s time we banded together and deal with the issue,” Adam said. “If not, this crisis is going to keep on going.”
Capitalist governments, however, are largely content to ignore the suicide crisis claiming so many lives in Indigenous communities plagued by intergenerational trauma, poverty, addiction, and lack of basic amenities such as clean drinking water. The capitalists pour billions of dollars into building pipelines on Indigenous land, into endless corporate welfare, and increased police and military spending; but refuse to address the suicide epidemic by improving the living conditions of Indigenous workers, youth, and the poor who face a bleak future under capitalism.
First Nations in a state of emergency
Indigenous communities across Canada have been grappling with a suicide crisis for decades, and while the issue has gained more public attention recently, it is a crisis that shows no signs of slowing down. This crisis is a direct result of the historical and ongoing oppression of Indigenous people, as well as the developing crisis of capitalism.
One of the most widely publicized instances of the Indigenous suicide crisis occurred in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, in 2016. The small Indigenous community, located in the heart of the Canadian oil sands, declared a state of emergency after a succession of suicide attempts. In the same year, Attawapiskat, a First Nations community in northern Ontario, declared a state of emergency after 11 suicide attempts in one night. Then-Chief Bruce Shisheesh pointed to many triggers for the suicides: bullying at school, overcrowded housing, intergenerational trauma from residential schools, and drug abuse as a way to numb pain from resulting physical and sexual abuse. “I’m asking friends, government, that we need help in our community,” Shisheesh said. “I have relatives that have attempted to take their own lives… cousins, friends.”
Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nation communities within northern Ontario, including Wapekeka and Attawapiskat, reported that 17 people died by suicide across the region between January 2016 and January 2017. In 2017, Wapekeka First Nation declared a state of emergency after multiple instances of youth committing or attempting suicide, including three 12-year-old girls who took their own lives in less than six months: Jolynn Winter, Chantell Fox, and Jenera Roundsky. A 14-year-old friend of the girls reported forming a suicide pact with other youth, cutting herself, and attempting suicide multiple times. The community band manager at the time and Fox’s uncle, Joshua Frogg, said a history of abuse—from residential schools to Ralph Rowe, an Anglican priest and one of Canada’s most prolific pedophiles—was partly to blame for high suicide rates in the community.
Months before the suicides of Fox and Winter, friends who died within two days of each other, Wapekeka asked the Trudeau government for $376,000 in suicide-prevention funds. The government denied their request, claiming that it was an “awkward time” in the federal funding cycle when all available money had already been allocated. “Awkward?,” Frogg responded. “It was awkward for us to bury two young children in the middle of the winter, in -30, -40 degree weather. It was awkward to break ground in the permafrost so that we could bury these children. It was awkward for our youth to cry at the funeral.” The Trudeau government subsequently promised to provide financial assistance to aid in the development of mental health support systems. But only a quarter of what was promised was delivered until external crowdfunding efforts were brought in.
The pattern is clear and unfortunately doesn’t come as a surprise. Suicide rates have consistently been shown to be higher among First Nations people, Métis, and Inuit in Canada than the rate among non-Indigenous people. In fact, according to a 2019 report from Statistics Canada, the suicide rate among First Nations people in Canada was three times higher than that of non-Indigenous people, and as many as nine times higher in Inuit communities.
What caused the crisis
The suicide crisis is the legacy of colonization and oppression that has destroyed countless families and communities. The Canadian state’s forced relocation of entire Indigenous communities to isolated and impoverished reserves led to intergenerational trauma through the breakdown of families, communities, and political and economic structures.
The forced assimilation policies that resulted in the removal of Indigenous children from their families and communities has been particularly devastating. The Canadian state created residential schools in the 19th and 20th centuries, which had the aim of eradicating Indigenous cultures, languages, and traditions. This policy continued in a new form with the “Sixties scoop” during which Indigenous children were taken from their families and placed in non-Indigenous homes.
While the last of the residential schools have now closed, this oppression continues. To this day, Indigenous children are abducted by the state and forced into the foster care system in record numbers. Indigenous children make up over 50 per cent of children in foster care, despite Indigenous people making up roughly five per cent of the Canadian population. This is a direct continuation of the “outdated” policies that had supposedly ended decades ago.
The consequences of all of this have been devastating and long-lasting. The Canadian state has forced these communities into impoverishment, and through their assimilation measures have eradicated languages, cultures, traditions, and families. The intergenerational trauma and alienation wrought by colonization and oppression reverberate throughout Indigenous communities.
Indigenous communities also bear the greatest impact of the ecological crisis.
In April of this year, it was discovered that an oil sands site upriver from Fort Chipewyan had knowingly been leaking toxic water into its neighbouring communities for months without warning. This is not a unique event, with big oil scandals and toxic exposure being an increasingly common occurrence. The working class in general, and particularly the youth, have a sense of climate doom, citing climate change as a major stressor in their lives. But for Indigenous communities, environmental destruction also means a direct attack on their health and quality of life.
Inflationary pressures are hitting Canada hard, and it is the impoverished communities that are being hit the hardest. Rural Inuit nations are particularly vulnerable, as they have historically faced some of the highest rates of suicide in the country, and this is perfectly in line with the difficult conditions they are forced to live under. Poverty is rampant, and access to essential services such as proper health care, housing, education, and clean water is severely lacking. Even prior to the pandemic, rural and northern communities were forced to deal with exorbitant prices for food and other necessities.The impact of the inflation crisis on these already vulnerable communities cannot be overstated.
Indigenous communities have faced centuries of violence and oppression at the hands of the Canadian state, which continues to maintain their poor conditions of life, without access to decent housing, affordable food and medicine, or clean water. It is no wonder that suicide rates are high and are rising in the current condition of economic crisis.
The role of capitalism
It is plain to see why Indigenous people face disproportionately high levels of mental health issues, just as it is plain to see that centuries of oppression by Canadian capitalism is the cause of it: from colonization—which enabled the expansion of new markets and generated new avenues of capital by killing, dispossessing, and subjugating the Indigenous population of Canada—to the present day, when the Canadian state upholds conditions of degradation and oppression.
The solution to this mental health crisis must address the root cause: capitalism. While providing mental health aid and access to care is essential, it is not enough to simply rely on medications and therapy to solve this epidemic. That is the mental health care provided in our current system, and even then, it is chronically underfunded. When the environmental factors remain the same, these efforts will ultimately be in vain. To truly address this issue, we must also address the material factors that contribute to poor mental health.
The profit-driven nature of the system is fundamentally opposed to meeting the needs of the working class people of all backgrounds. Many of the problems faced by Indigenous people are the same problems of the entire working class, though in a much more severe form: state oppression, environmental destruction, unemployment, poor housing, and lack of health care and education. It is therefore in the interests of all of the Canadian working class and their organizations to take up the fight against this oppression.
Wealth inequality is only growing, with the division between the capitalists and the workers more apparent than ever. As the working class becomes poorer, on the opposite pole, the capitalists become wealthier—and it becomes clear who the enemy of the working class and oppressed is.
Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers are both being crushed under the Canadian capitalists’ feet. With the continued privatization of health care, strike-breaking, and back-to-work legislations, the entirety of the working class must come together to fight back against our oppressors. The ongoing mental health crisis is one of many symptoms pointing to the decay of the capitalist system, and to many, there appears no way out.
We must fight against the system that perpetuates the oppression of Indigenous groups and organize for a future that sees all layers of the working class lifted from the burdens of capitalism.