Archbishop Murray Chatlain

Archbishop Murray Chatlain

April 4, 2016
EVAN BOUDREAU
THE CATHOLIC REGISTER

Living alongside Canada's First Nations people is a ministry of highs and heartaches for Archbishop Murray Chatlain.

The heartache comes to the forefront at times like now, highlighted by a suicide crisis that has struck the First Nations' community of Cross Lake, Man.

"You suffer the highs and the lows of the family," said Chatlain, archbishop of Keewatin-Le Pas. "When there are signs of this depression, this deep pain, we try to be as present as we can and refer people to some of the resources that are sound.

"The level of depression and giving up, this is increasing . . . and it is disheartening.

"People get stuck in that too and then that brings more tragedy, there is a bit of that cycle going on."

Spiking suicide statistics in Cross Lake have brought attention to a crisis Chatlain has seen firsthand for years.

Since Dec. 12, six have taken their own life on the reserve with 140 attempted suicides reported in the two weeks prior, leading acting Chief Shirley Robinson to declare a state of emergency in the community of about 8,000. Robinson called on the federal government for support.

"There is so much hurt, there's so much pain," Robinson told the CBC. "We're tired. We need that support, we need that assistance, everybody in our community feels it. . . . This is too much for me."

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Health Minister Jane Philpott say the government is determined to address the underlying causes. Bennett called the Cross Lake crisis a snapshot of a national struggle.

"Cross Lake is not alone," said Bennett. "This is happening coast to coast to coast and we need to stop it."

That's a reality Chatlain's all too familiar with.

"Cross Lake is getting attention now, unfortunately because of the large number, but we have had an epidemic of suicides in so many of our communities," he said.

This isn't a new issue. Research from the University of Manitoba, published in 1997 and looking back to 1988, shows the issue is decades old. In 1995 the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People released a special report on suicide among First Nations' people calling for the establishment of a national prevention program.

In 2004 the framework was laid for the National Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy.

The situation hasn't improved.

SITUATION WORSENING

"It's been there in all my years," said Chatlain. "It's worse now."

A report released by Statistics Canada in January says one in five Aboriginals involved in a 2012 study had experienced suicidal thoughts, with addictions, poor health and divorce contributing to the persistent problem.

Substance abuse and an unemployment rate of about 80 per cent, according to Robinson, are taking their toll in Cross Lake.

According to Statistics Canada Aboriginal youth are five to six times more likely than non-First Nations to commit suicide, the leading cause of death among Aboriginals 44-years-old and younger. Males are three times as likely to commit suicide.

In Cross Lake, those statistics are seen in blood, tears and bodies.

Father Guru Mendem, pastor of Holy Cross Church in Cross Lake, said the majority of those who've committed or attempted suicide this year are between 14 and 32, most younger than 21.

"It is very sad to see small children committing suicide," said Mendem, now in his third year at the parish. "They don't even know what life is and already they are committing suicide. (They) lack love from the parents."

PRAYER GROUPS

Four of the six recent suicides involved teens with the youngest being a 14-year-old who was buried on March 6, the day she would have turned 15.

Mendem, who came to Cross Lake from India, said while suicide is a global problem, he never expected it to be so prevalent among the Aboriginal youth. To curb this, he and the local youth director regularly hold events like prayer groups for youth.

Chatlain says the Church tries to give these suicidal people a sense of purpose. The diocese recently held a youth retreat in the Cross Lake region.

"The challenge is trying to get these communities to see some good, to see that there is hope and to get a sense of God having a plan for them. We're trying to renew that sense with our young people but there are a lot of negative winds blowing."