Aboriginal Canadian town in crisis amid rash of suicides

TORONTO (Reuters) - A Canadian aboriginal community appealed for federal aid on Thursday after six suicides in two months and 140 suicide attempts in the last two weeks alone, the latest in a string of crises in Canada’s often isolated indigenous communities.

The Cross Lake Cree community of 8,300, located 500 kilometers (311 miles) north of Winnipeg, Manitoba, declared a state of emergency this week as the suicide crisis spread, Pimicikamak Acting Chief Shirley Robinson told Reuters.

Robinson said she hopes the state of emergency will prompt the federal government to send more qualified short-term health workers to address the suicides and attempts at self harm.

“We’ve been utilizing all our frontline workers: nurses, doctors, school teachers and local clergy, but we don’t have enough manpower to reach out to everyone,” she said.

A gunman killed four people in a remote northern Aboriginal community in the neighboring province of Saskatchewan in January, highlighting problems plaguing Canada’s indigenous people, who make up 5 percent of the population. An aboriginal teenager has been charged in the shootings.

The latest suicide in Cross Lake was that of a 34-year-old mother of three and a cousin of Robinson, she said.

The acting chief said her community has an unemployment rate of 80 percent, and said housing is “neither safe nor healthy” in the town, with one case of as many as 27 people living in one house. Cross Lake is the third largest aboriginal community in the western province of Manitoba.

Robinson said she is working with the Canadian government to try and resolve the housing and employment issues. She said only one health worker has been sent to address the crisis.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada said officials have reached out to offer assistance, “and will work with the community to help address their mental health needs in this difficult time,” a spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.

In December, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to improve relationships with Canada’s First Nations, and to tackle issues of poverty, crime and health, as well as launch an inquiry into the cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

Canada’s 1.4 million aboriginals have higher levels of poverty and a lower life expectancy than other Canadians, and are more often victims of violent crime, addiction and incarceration.

Reporting by Marwa Siam-Abdou; Editing by Chris Reese