At first glance, the remote ferry-in community of Liidlii Kue First Nation, also known as Fort Simpson, appears peaceful, but there is a pain in the community after four suicides in the last four months.
The most recent on June 4th – when a 19-year-old woman took her life.
A few days after the funeral, leaders of the First Nation’s community held a public meeting at Thomas Simpson Secondary School calling on residents to share their thoughts on suicide prevention practices.
Over 100 people attended the meeting, and over the next five hours residents of all ages and of various backgrounds came forward to speak on how bullying and lack of mental health resources are some of the root causes of the crisis.
Darlene Sibbeston, mayor of Fort Simpson who has lived in the community all of her life, was quick to take the stand during the meeting and shared that she was full of hurt from the tragedies over the last few months.
“Just from my own view people react but then time goes on it doesn’t seem that the community was garnering enough action to get things done. This last one has hit a vulnerable population. We have to make an action plan and keep on top of it because we cannot afford to lose any more of our people,” she said.
This “vulnerable population” Darlene referred to also shared their thoughts at the meeting.
Youth cited bullying as a critical contributor in the suicide crisis.
Ramona Earson, a local Dene youth said that she has played the role of both victimizer and victim and that the community must no longer ignore the bullying that extends beyond the high school walls.
“The bullying comes from student to student, mentor to peer and family member to family member. What we may traditionally view as bullying such as physical and verbal abuse – in a small town like this it is easier to get away with forms of bullying such as keeping the truth from someone, or knowingly putting someone in a dangerous situation.”
Community members also voiced their concern over the local RCMP response times when complaints of youth bullying are relayed to authorities.
Shawna Sibbeston, a resident of Fort Simpson who lost her brother Cory Sibbeston in March, 2017, told APTN of her dissatisfaction with the Fort Simpson RCMP’s ability to prevent and break up fights.
“When I’m driving around town I have seen people fighting here and there. I have called the cops before and it takes them 20 to 30 minutes to get there even though we live in such a small community,” she said.
At the meeting, some families said that it took upwards of a month to respond to complaints of severe bullying.
APTN requested an interview with the Fort Simpson RCMP regarding the allegations but was denied.
Alternatively all questions were directed to Marie York-Condon, Media Relations Northwest Territories RCMP.
York-Condon said that Fort Simpson RCMP officers in the unit felt that the issue of bullying is a community problem and not something to be strictly handled by the RCMP.
“We don’t want to make it seem that there is only one particular factor in that community. He (the RCMP Officer who attended the suicide prevention meeting) doesn’t want to go on record saying that yes this is a problem.”
York-Condon relayed the message that based on the Fort Simpson Officer’s experience in other northern communities in his professional opinion the issue of bullying in Fort Simpson did not appear to be “any more concentrated than any of the other communities he has worked in.”
The Media Relations Northwest Territories RCMP refused APTN’s request to speak towards specific response times.
Along with community – RCMP relations, attendees at the meeting also noted a lack of mental health support services recreational activities that foster healthy development of youth as another contributor to individuals taking their own lives.
In particular, Zehroh Waugh, 16-years-of-age paced back and forth as he bravely shared his experiences not having social outlets outside of school hours to help him cope with bullying.
“There is limited access to resources such as sports, we don’t have too much going on here as there could be. There needs to be more meetings like this first youth meeting that are hands on where youth can share their stories,” he said.
Until the most recent death the community offered only two public mental health counsellors and one nursing station for people to go to.
“I’ve heard a lot of people describe their own experiences with mental health and how they are not getting the services as quickly as they need. There’s resources here but they are stretched so far,” mayor Sibbeston said.
Those looking for a non-emergency meeting with a counsellor had to wait and average of three weeks.
After the fourth death, the Territorial government sent a third counsellor to the community.
Representatives from the Territorial government were at the suicide prevention meeting and suggested that the crisis will not be resolved with a one single strategy.
Nathalie Nadeau, Territorial Director of Child, Family and Community Wellness under the GNWT Health Authority, said that the government will implement a strategy based on the requests from Fort Simpson leaders.
“It’s looking at what your target population is. We are responsible to work with our clients whether it is bullying or healthy relationships, that’s definitely a subject that our counselling team is able to support,” she said.
For those who have lost loved ones like Shawna Sibbeston, shipping in more counsellors may not be the solution.
“I didn’t really feel comfortable talking with anyone after this happened it was really tough for me and still is. I want to have ore on-the-land healing with elders who I know and trust,” Sibbeston said.
The sentiment for a hands-on approach to healing was echoed by many youth at the meeting who called for the creation of monthly healing sessions led by-youth-for-youth.
“Delegating leadership roles will be number one. I didn’t just want one meeting. I wanted this to be a long term, sit-down, figure out what’s going on because communication is key and communication is where we fail,” Earson said.
All thoughts expressed at the first suicide prevention meeting were recently shared with the territorial health authority in hopes of creating an action plan.
As for what that action plan actually pertains and how long it will take for all of the community’s needs to be addressed, is unclear.
In the meantime leaders in the community will continue sharing their experiences with suicide and bullying through a series of open meetings designated for youth and adults.
As a month has passed since the most recent suicide, APTN will follow-up with what has been done over the last few weeks to create long term solutions to the suicide crisis.