REGINA — A councillor for Lac La Ronge Indian Band in Saskatchewan's far north says his community of Sucker River is facing a suicide crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Devin Bernatchez said there have been several suicides in his community, including his cousin, in the last month.
"It has a ripple effect," he told reporters Monday in Regina. "You have suicide attempts too, and I've seen it from my own family. My own family, they're losing hope."
Bernatchez visited the legislature in Regina where he called on the Saskatchewan Party government to work with the community as it faces a shortage of resources, including counsellors.
During the province's fourth wave of COVID-19, more than 100 health-care workers in the north were redeployed to help with the surge in cases. Most have returned, but it left services such as harm reduction with staff shortages for months.
Minister of Rural and Remote Health Everett Hindley said the north continues to face a shortage of counsellors and psychiatrists, creating a backlog for those who need help.
He said he doesn't know how much funding would be needed to resolve the issue, but noted it's a priority.
"We're taking a look not only what do we need now, but what do we need in the future and identify how much staff we need, and what's that going to cost us," Hindley said.
In the meantime, Bernatchez said he's worried the situation will get worse.
His community has put together programs for youth and started support groups for men and women, but he still receives messages on Facebook from people asking for help.
"Suicides have increased. Addictions have increased. We've seen it in our communities, and we want to have a spirit of partnership," he said.
"Come into our reserves, come into our communities. Don't be scared to come on the rez, we invite you. Come see it for yourself and see how we can help people out."
Hindley committed Monday to visiting Sucker River, but he did say when.
"There are challenges when it comes to mental health across this province, but I do recognize there's additional challenges in our remote communities because of access to services," said the minister.
He pointed to the government's suicide prevention plan, Pillars For Life, as a way to address current needs.
Both Bernatchez and Doyle Vermette, the Opposition critic for mental health and addictions, said the plan hasn't helped.
"The minister should ask himself in the mirror this question: to the families that lost loved ones, did the pillars of life help you?" Vermette said. "Because the people I've seen, I haven't heard anyone talking about Pillars For Life back home where I've heard and seen families suffer. I don't even know if they know what it is."
Bernatchez expressed similar sentiments, suggesting the government could at least provide training so he could help those who contact him.
"I don't see any action right now. We hear a lot of reconciliation from this government, but we don't see a lot of reconcile-action when it comes to suicide prevention," Bernatchez said.
"A lot of people don't have hope. I see it. We're trying to get this province to say there is hope for the future."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2021
Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press