EDITOR’S NOTE — This story includes a discussion of suicide.
Small, white crosses dot a graveyard just outside Neskantaga First Nation in northern Ontario. Some graves are marked with white picket fences, flowers have been placed at others. Most have no names or ages, but some do.
A 16-year-old girl rests in one plot, a 13-year-old in another. Suicide brought them there.
Ten years ago, Neskantaga First Nation – a remote community with a population of about 450 – declared a state of emergency after four suicides and several attempted suicides by teens.
The state of emergency officially remains, but the community quietly spoke about a small milestone this past summer: no one had killed themselves in Neskantaga in three years.
Several measures helped get to that point – there are mental-health counsellors who rotate into the community, outdoor activities that help youth connect with traditional practices, and festivals that bring community members together.
The focus on building bonds is important, said Chief Chris Moonias.
“The connections with family and community help with the impact on mental health,” he said as a festival in August drew Neskantaga residents from near and far to the community.
“It is a form of healing.”
Despite progress, the community some 450 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., knows the crisis is far from solved.
“Suicide is always here in Neskantaga even when it’s not,” said Stanley Moonias, a case manager with the National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program, in the summer.
“The biggest problem I see is unresolved grief.”
– ‘I love you Grandpa’ –
Grief has recently overwhelmed Stanley Moonias.
A freshly dug grave marks the final resting spot for his granddaughter, Wilda Sakanee, who took her life in Thunder Bay three days before Christmas.
Stanley Moonias said his granddaughter texted him the words “I love you Grandpa,” at 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 22.
The next morning, while sitting in a restaurant in Thunder Bay, he got a call from Community Living, a mental health program she was enrolled in, telling him she was dead.
“You know, she wasn’t well, she had a lot of trauma growing up,” said Stanley Moonias, who likes to look at pictures of Sakanee, remembering the fishing and camping trips they took together.
Her father, Steve Moonias, said his daughter had struggled since her aunt killed herself two years ago.
He last saw his daughter about a week before in Thunder Bay. She had just got out of the hospital and showed him a rope burn around her neck.
“I tried to commit suicide,” he recalled her saying.
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“No one told me about (it), not even Community Living,” he said.
That night in December, Community Living had been checking in on her every 20 or 30 minutes, Steve Moonias said, through social media messages, asking if she was OK.
“She gave them a thumbs up emoji,” he said.
When she stopped responding, Community Living ended up breaking down her door. Community Living did not respond to a request for comment.
The First Nation brought her back to be buried in Neskantaga, where the cycle of grief never seems to end.
– Generations of trauma –
There have been 34 suicides in Neskantaga since 1982, the majority involving young people, Stanley Moonias said. There were three suicides in 2019, community figures show.
The older generations from Neskantaga were forced into residential schools, taken from their families by the Catholic or Anglican churches, while others attended local day schools where they were forced to learn another culture and forget about their own.
Many children in the First Nation do not know their language, Oji-Cree, and know little about their traditional way of living.
“There’s grief for the old ways, but at the same time, not all of our young people are learning the culture,” Stanley Moonias, with the drug and alcohol abuse program, said.
“The Catholic and Anglican churches taught us that our culture was evil and that has carried on through generations.”
Elder Alex Moonias – unrelated to the Neskantaga chief and Stanley Moonias – nearly lost his son to suicide years ago.
After his daughter rushed to revive the boy, he recalled his son repeating two words: “this darkness, this darkness.”
“If you’re grieving, your spirit is low,” Alex Moonias said. “When your spirit gets low, you’re vulnerable.”
An ongoing drinking water crisis – Neskantaga has the country’s longest running boil-water advisory at 28 years – weighs on the community.
Children must also leave the community at as young as 13 years old if they want to go to high school since there isn’t one in the First Nation.
There’s alcohol addiction and a rising opioid problem in the community, like the rest of the province. And there are survivors of sexual abuse and other forms of abuse in the community, said Stanley Moonias.
“It’s hard to heal when everybody knows everybody,” he said. “Everyone knows what is going on, good or bad.”
That confluence of factors affects the mental wellness of the community, officials say.
More than 100 community members have at least one mental health diagnosis, said Sharon Sakanee, Neskantaga’s health director.
“We have lots of depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety disorders and alcohol and drug problems,” she said. “There are many more who could be diagnosed, but another problem is getting doctors up here to give a diagnosis.”
Neskantaga is not unique.
This past fall, the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority that serves more than 30 First Nations, including Neskantaga, declared a state of emergency over mental health concerns.
It said there has been an alarming rise in self harm and nearly 600 band members had killed themselves since the mid-1980s. Band members visited emergency departments for self harm at a rate 16 times that of the provincial rate.
In late January, northern Ontario First Nation leaders held an emergency meeting in Ottawa over the mental health crisis and a spate of suicides and suicide attempts in recent months.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler called on Ottawa and Ontario to help. The federal government pledged to hold a meeting with NAN’s youth council so they can speak directly to politicians.
– ‘More joy’ –
In the aftermath of declaring its state of emergency over suicides, Neskantaga launched “Choose Life,” a program designed to help those struggling with their mental health.
Two mental health counsellors from neighbouring First Nations rotate into the community every 14 days, Stanley Moonias said. The program also organizes hunting and fishing trips and other outdoor activities.
“It is helping a lot, especially for our youth, to connect to their roots,” he said.
While the program is used mostly by teens and young adults, it is open to anyone.
“I use the counsellors, too,” Moonias said. “Like others, I have bad days and good days.”
He said he was sexually abused in the church-run day school he was forced to attend. Later, he turned to alcohol to cope. Over the years, he has taken up visits to the sweat lodge and given up alcohol to clear his mind. His work also helps.
“I feel happy helping other people,” he said.
Another part of community healing is the large summer festival Neskantaga throws each year, in part to give residents something big to look forward to.
Last year, organizers brought in bands from neighbouring First Nations as well as ’80s rock bands Harlequin and Trooper, organized massive bingo games and water games. Some teens canoed for the first time.
The event drew home about 100 Neskantaga members who live elsewhere.
“We wanted to bring everyone home,” said the chief. “To bring everyone together.”
Festivals are crucial events for First Nations, said Sol Mamakwa, the New Democrat provincial legislator for the Kiiwetinoong riding, where Neskantaga is located.
“Festivals can actually save lives in Neskantaga and other First Nations,” Mamakwa said.
“It becomes a suicide prevention activity without really knowing it because you’re having fun. And that’s what our communities need: more joy.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
For immediate mental health support, call 988. For a directory of support services in your area, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention at suicideprevention.ca.
Learn more about preventing suicide with these warning signs and tips on how to help.