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Updated: Cowichan Tribes' appeal for help with suicides being answered

Cowichan Tribes Chief Harvey Alphonse, left, speaks during the band
Cowichan Tribes Chief Harvey Alphonse, left, speaks during the band's state of emergency press conference while elder and councillor Arvid Charlie looks on.
— image credit: Krista Siefken

Cowichan Tribes’ appeal for more resources in the wake of an alarming spike in suicides on reserve is being answered at both the provincial and federal levels.

And Chief Harvey Alphonse, who issued a state-of-emergency declaration in response to the tragic deaths among his members, says the local community has leaped into action to assist as well.

“It gives you a bit of a lift when there is that type of response — and when it is so immediate,” he said late Tuesday morning.

Alphonse and his fellow council members called on federal and provincial agencies for more support in the state-of-emergency declaration signed May 8.

During a press conference Monday morning, the chief explained the appeal follows four suicides and another 48 suicide attempts on reserve since January.

They are staggering numbers that contribute to the band’s suicide alerts rising by more than two and-a-half times in the past five years compared to the prior five-year span.

And of the recent deaths, two of the four were Cowichan Tribes employees, while many of the alerts are coming from youth.

"We are losing our most valuable resources — our children and our caregivers," Alphonse said.

There are also all the alerts that go undocumented, such as the ones that go directly to Alphonse or general manager Maureen Tommy.

"Furthermore, youth reach out to one another and support one another through dark times,” Alphonse added. “These peer interventions also go undocumented."

But while Tribes has noted a nine-fold increase in the use of the band’s mental health services, health-funding limitations mean staff levels have remained unchanged, the chief said.

Which is why the band has called on Victoria and Ottawa for assistance.

"(They) are being called to action, to work with us in the spirit of reconciliation to address suicide prevention and to work together with Cowichan Tribes to use additional resources to begin turning our community around, with the goal of our members embracing life," Alphonse said.

"Our current minimal resources for suicide prevention prove to be insufficient, therefore we are asking for additional resources."

Some of those resources, explained Tribes' acting health director Jennifer Jones, would hopefully be used to staff two or three more counsellors. The band currently has nine counsellors, and a two- to three-week wait list for an appointment with one of them.

"They will see someone ... who is attempting suicide, however, that is more of a reactive instead of a preventative (measure)," she said.

There's also a need for more suicide-prevention training and education, Jones added.

And Cowichan Tribes is also working on a strategic plan titled Embracing Life at Cowichan Tribes as a preventative measure.

Health Canada spokesman Steve Outhouse said talks with Tribes are already underway.

Programs plus medical and mental health professionals can be dispatched, he added, once the needs of the community are determined through those talks.

And Outhouse said Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq’s thoughts and prayers are with the families that are grieving right now.

“The minister is from the north and has certainly experienced community hurts like this personally, so she’s very well aware of how difficult a situation like this can be,” he said.

Meanwhile, B.C.’s Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, Mary Polak, said her ministry is co-ordinating the province’s response to Cowichan’s crisis.

“There’s no question we need to be deeply concerned about what’s happened recently with the spike in suicide numbers,” she said Tuesday.

Polak’s ministry will be working with Tribes this week to determine what it needs to address the issue.

“We need to pay immediate attention to prevent any further incidents, any further tragedies,” she said. “But beyond that the very first thing that my staff will be doing is assessing where the needs are the greatest, and looking at the current structure of service.”

Polak also offered her sympathy to those impacted by the crisis.

“It’s a tragedy not just for the individual families and loved ones but for the whole community. It really is a difficult thing for all of them to come to grips with,” Polak said.

"To me, there is a sense of hopelessness," Alphonse said. "It seems we're in a time where the economy is difficult, there is high unemployment and many of the inherent rights that we know of are being eroded. For example, our hunting rights, our fishing rights."

Tribes unemployment rate, Alphonse said, is approximately 85 per cent.

He encouraged youth particularly to reach out if they're having thoughts of suicide, and spoke about the importance of listening to those who talk about suicide.

"I've had a personal experience with an individual who was reaching out to me several years ago, and it's something I regret to this day," he said.

Alphonse explained a man had come to him and expressed suicidal thoughts. Alphonse had asked the man to wait half-an-hour while he returned some equipment he had rented.

But by the time he'd returned, the man had already killed himself.

"It's important to stay there at the moment, because you may not have that second chance," Alphonse said.

"I encourage people who are hearing these words, or this kind of language from an individual, to remain with the individual until they have found some help or are encouraged to go on with life."

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