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Cowichan Tribes declares suicide-related state of emergency

Harvey Alphonse will address the media Monday about the state of emergency Cowichan Tribes declared because of a recent rash of suicides. -
Harvey Alphonse will address the media Monday about the state of emergency Cowichan Tribes declared because of a recent rash of suicides.
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A recent spike in suicides and suicide attempts on reserve has prompted Cowichan Tribes to declare a state of emergency.

A press conference with statistics and other details is scheduled with Chief Harvey Alphonse on Monday at 9 a.m.

In the meantime, Alphonse told the News Leader Pictorial the declaration was signed by the band’s council on May 8, and is already in effect.

“There is a connection with (suicides from) the past, however, it has been just over a month now since there has been these kinds of concerns that have been raised,” Alphonse said of the mounting worry about suicides and suicide attempts in the community.

Tribes won’t be releasing the hard numbers until the press conference on Monday, but it’s already been reported Tribes hosted a trio of community forums last month to talk about the taboo topic.

The first, called the Circle of Light Gathering, was attended by National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo.

“We gathered information, statistical information, about the emergency occurring in our community, and based on what we found, it met the criteria for declaring the state of emergency,” Alphonse added.

The declaration is an internal process, but Cowichan Tribes’ general manager explained it’s also an appeal to Victoria and Ottawa.

“Cowichan Tribes is calling upon our own government and our various centres and programs to respond to the state of emergency, and we’ve been doing that since April with the three community forums we’ve hosted to date,” said Maureen Tommy. “Also, we are submitting our state of emergency to the provincial and the federal governments.”

“It is leveraging resources,” added Alphonse, “because we do have programs, however, we do not have the resources to cover the cost for the kind of employees we would need to really run a true program in these emergencies.

“You’d need a supervisor and, naturally, there would be counsellors, people who have a specialty in the field.”

Calls to Health Canada were not returned by press time Thursday, but Ian Knipe, director of Aboriginal health at the Vancouver Island Health Authority, said his department is already working with Tribes to address the problem.

An inter-agency meeting was held a few weeks ago, and a follow-up is being planned to ascertain what’s needed next.

“What we do, first of all, is listen to the community and the leadership in the community in terms of how we can best support them and use a collaborative approach, and then bring the resources to the table,” he said.

Knipe explained VIHA has a series of programs around Aboriginal health, as well as mental health, to assist with prevention, training and education. There’s even support for staff suffering from what’s called compassion fatigue.

“We really want to collaborate and not use a top-down approach but rather work with the community to identity what the needs are, and support to the community to address those needs,” he added.

Cowichan’s move was applauded by elder Joe Thorne.

“It’s about time,” he said. “This is Canada-wide, and it’s not just Aboriginal people. There is just so much sadness, and confusion, and a lack of economic development for employment, for education, for money to do anything.

“People are so limited, and every day you turn on the TV or open the newspaper, something is being cut — and the repercussions are like ripples in the water. Once your drop the pebble, it goes on and on. So this is new, but it’s overdue.”

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