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First Nations concerned after cluster of suicides

Apr 05 2012

Elders in the Cowichan and Chemainus First Nations are urging parents in their communities to sit down and talk with their children and find out what's going on in their lives.

Four suicides occurred among young adults over 33 days, prompting residents to gather this week to find ways to prevent more tragic deaths.

Cowichan Tribes elder Joe Thorne said the suicides are serving as a wakeup call for a community that prides itself on its close ties. "It hurts - it's like losing someone in your household," Thorne said Wednesday.

The suicides of three men and one women occurred Feb. 26, and March 7, 12 and 30. One victim was 23 and the others were in their 30s, said Barbara McLintock, spokeswoman for the regional coroner.

"Obviously, it's concerning when you have that many that close together," said McLintock on Wednesday. "We looked briefly at the circumstances of each one - and there doesn't appear to be any linkage between them."

There were 106 suicides on Vancouver Island in 2009, the most recent year for which numbers are available.

The rate of suicide is significantly higher among people who've had self-inflicted deaths within their families, McLintock said.

"Probably a lot of people in the Cowichan Tribes know a lot of others in the Cowichan Tribes. When you get a cluster on a reserve, it is a concern, because you don't want there to be any more."

An open forum held Tuesday featured speeches from community elders and Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. A second gathering is scheduled for April 11.

The deaths caught the community by surprise, Thorne said. The root causes are complex, and include a feeling of hopelessness due to economic hard times.

"I think one of the directions the chief is taking is finding some economic stability, if that's at all possible," Thorne said.

The spate of recent suicides, and the generally higher suicide rate among First Nations, is a concern, said Thorne, saying: "There's something wrong."

Atleo urged parents to sit down with their children and talk, a piece of advice Thorne acted on Tuesday evening.

"I sat my kids down and for the first time in a long time, we talked. It was good for me. I didn't realize there was so much going on in my own house."

His daughter talked about difficulties at school while his three-year-old granddaughter wondered what happened to her dad, who had recently broken up with her mom.

Thorne hopes the families in his community will learn from the deaths and be stronger.

"I hope we have a better understanding of what's going on in our children's minds, a better understanding that we can communicate and, more and more, just stop and say, 'Hey, I love you.' "

smcculloch@timescolonist.com

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