NESKANTAGA FIRST NATION, ONT. – Small, white crosses dot a graveyard just outside Neskantaga First Nation in northern Ontario. Some graves are marked with white picket fences, flowers have been placed at others. Most have no names or ages, but some do. A 16-year-old girl rests in one plot, a 13-year-old in another. Suicide brought them there.
Ten years ago, Neskantaga First Nation – a remote community with a population of about 450 – declared a state of emergency after four suicides and several attempted suicides by teens. The state of emergency officially remains, but the community quietly spoke about a small milestone this past summer: no one had killed themselves in Neskantaga in three years.
Several measures helped get to that point – there are mental-health counsellors who rotate into the community, outdoor activities that help youth connect with traditional practices, and festivals that bring community members together.
The focus on building bonds is important, said Chief Chris Moonias. “The connections with family and community help with the impact on mental health,” he said as a festival in August drew Neskantaga residents from near and far to the community. “It is a form of healing.”