Counsellors, band members and residents of a Nova Scotia reserve set up a makeshift crisis centre in their community Wednesday to field calls and meet with people in a desperate bid to stem a spate of suicides.
Police, drug addictions experts and mental health counsellors gathered in a cultural centre on the Eskasoni reserve in central Cape Breton, where at least four people between the ages of 16 and 21 have committed suicide since December.
Jaime Battiste, an adviser to the band's chief and council, said members were holding a meeting Tuesday to discuss the problem when word of the latest suicide broke.
A 19-year-old man had hanged himself.
"We decided that for the next 48 hours, we're going to do everything we can to stop this crisis," he said, adding the temporary crisis centre will shut down Thursday afternoon.
"We think we can get ourselves over this hump with our community pulling together, but after that what are we going to do?"
Officials from the band have appealed to Health Canada and the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs for emergency funding for a 24-hour youth crisis shelter that has sat empty for about half a year.
Battiste said Ottawa provided money to construct the facility, but the band doesn't have funds to operate and staff it. The building has been without furnishings and staff since construction was completed.
Drug counsellors maintain that if the facility were open for youth with chronic drug problems or who may be suffering from abuse or depression, it might have helped prevent this most recent rash of suicides.
Health Canada spokesperson Josee Bellemare said Wednesday evening that after meeting with Indian and Northern Affairs and Eskasoni officials, an offer of immediate short-term crisis counselling has been made to the reserve.
Bellemare said that includes $10,000 in additional funding to support counselling and youth activities.
Chief Charlie Dennis said the band sent a letter to Indian and Northern Affairs to ask for money or programming that would allow for it to hold grief counselling sessions and bring in psychiatrists.
They're also seeking long-term funding of about $500,000 over three years to staff and furnish the crisis shelter, which cost more than $200,000 to build.
The intention was to give youth at risk a place to go and talk to counsellors or stay for the night. The community is plagued by widespread prescription drug abuse, unemployment of 85 per cent, poverty and few opportunities.
"I'm praying that nobody else takes this route," Dennis said of the suicides after a long night at the crisis centre. "Everyone's wondering when this is going to stop. ... We need federal help."
Native reserves across Canada have faced high levels of suicide, but Battiste said people in their late teens and early 20s seem to be at the centre of the problem in Eskasoni because of drug problems and a seemingly bleak future.
"Young adults are the ones who are struggling the most right now and this crisis is hitting them the hardest," he said, adding that the reserve's population has exploded in recent years to about 4,000 with the average age at about 21.
"The young adults are dying more than the teenagers."
Police records show that there were three suicides in 2007, one in 2006 and four in 2004, with most caused by hangings or substance abuse. But people on the reserve say the numbers are probably higher since some deaths aren't recorded as suicides.
Battiste said there is also an unknown number of people who have attempted suicide.
RCMP Const. Glynis Thomas said police have stepped up efforts in the last two years to tackle a growing drug trade on the First Nation. Four people were charged Wednesday with possession of marijuana and pills.
"More and more in recent years, it's prescription pills," she said, adding that last year they charged 17 people with possession for purpose of trafficking.
Statistics from the Indian Registry System show a total of four suicides and another five drug-and alcohol-related deaths since the beginning of 2008.