Village where suicide seems only escape

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 February, 2008, 12:00am

Draiciee Wilson, 24, remembers the isolated western Canadian village of Hazelton as an ideal place to grow up. Tucked in among the mountains along British Columbia's Skeena River, everyone there knew everyone else. Community dinners were regularly held at the local hall, and parents would cheer on as their children played ice hockey in the winters and soccer in the summers. Then, a little more than a decade ago, the village and its outlying areas began to rapidly deteriorate, Ms Wilson said.

The logging jobs disappeared, and with them the sense of collective spirit in community, she says. Poverty, boredom, and eventually despair set in. By the time Ms Wilson turned 15, she, like many residents of the area, turned to alcohol and drugs to fill her days. 'There's nothing for kids to do, there's no employment and there's more liquor stores than grocery stores.'

At the age of 17 and trapped by feelings of hopelessness, Ms Wilson tried to take her own life.

'One night, I just figured, 'What's the point? Why even be around?'' she says.

Her sister found her collapsed at home alone, and managed to rush her to the hospital in time to save her. Ms Wilson says she has lost several good friends to suicide, and many, many more have attempted it.

While suicide has been a problem in the Hazelton area for years, a sudden rash of attempts over the past year has left the community reeling, raising alarm over what to do about this 'epidemic'. The population of the community is small, about 6,000 mostly aboriginal, or First Nations, people spread out over a large area. Yet in 2007 alone, the hospital in Hazelton recorded a staggering 202 suicide attempts, according to the province's Northern Health Authority.

There were seven attempts in a single week in November. The Health Authority does not have figures on the number of deaths. Government statistics show that the suicide rate amongst Canada's aboriginal people is three to four times higher than non-aboriginals. But in Hazelton, the number of attempts in 2007 has far surpassed the national average, quadrupling from the previous year, says mental health counsellor Alf Brady of the Gitxsan Health Society, which serves the Gitxsan people, the largest of the area's First Nations groups. Mr Brady is at a loss to explain the sudden increase, but notes that residents commonly point to unemployment as a major contributing factor. According to some estimates, the unemployment rate has risen to about 90 per cent, after the collapse of the area's resource industry about 10 years ago shut down sawmills and the logging jobs that had long supported the region vanished.

The lack of recreational activities in the area is another problem for young people and adults alike.

There are no public swimming pools, no sports centres and besides regular bingo games held at the community halls, there is little else to keep people occupied.

The only public recreational facility was a dilapidated, condemned ice area, former aboriginal chief Victor Robinson said.

'When there's nothing to do, people will fall into the laps of abusing whatever is available - alcohol or drugs,' Mr Brady said.

Although it's not considered the cause of suicides, he explains, substance abuse tends to lower a person's ability to make rational decisions, and can lead to all kinds of violence and self-harm. So far, alcohol and cocaine are the most prevalent and harmful drugs in the area, Mr Brady says, but he worries about the potential for the widespread introduction of methamphetamines to the community. 'When that happens, it'll be a major problem,' he says.

Bambie Tait, 26, who grew up just outside Hazelton, says the community's pain has deep roots. Between the 1870s and the 1970s, generations of Canada's First Nations people were forced to attend government-funded Indian residential schools, where many claim they were physically and sexually abused, forcibly confined, separated from their families and stripped of their culture and language.

'We have generations of people who have lost parenting and coping skills due to residential school and colonisation,' Ms Tait says, adding that her niece has attempted suicide multiple times. 'I recognise that this is a cycle. Her mother went through some of the same things and that was how she handled it, too.'

Although Ms Tait enjoyed a supportive, stable home life and hung out with a 'pretty tame bunch', she says many of her peers were not so fortunate. 'I grew up hearing about random rapes and gang rapes, how much fun it was to drink until you blacked out, who fought who at what party,' she said. 'I also grew up hearing about the sexual abuse some of my friends went through.'

Ms Wilson says many of her friends are also victims of sexual and physical abuse. Her own suicide attempt was not spurred by any traumatic event, but a general, severe and unrelenting depression.

Mr Brady says the community suffers from a shortage of mental health professionals who can help address these numerous issues. Including himself and a colleague at the Gitxsan Health Society, there are only about a half dozen mental health workers providing services for the entire population.

Meanwhile, amongst politicians and community leaders, there is finger pointing over who is responsible for alleviating the suicide epidemic. Dennis MacKay, member of the provincial legislative assembly representing the region, says Hazelton's problems are not a result of a lack of government funding.

Although the situation in Hazelton is dire, young adults like Ms Wilson and Ms Tait believe there is hope. Ms Wilson credits grassroots organisations such as Mr Brady's and the Gitxsan Child and Family Services, which provides support and crisis prevention, for saving countless lives in the Hazelton area, including her own.

Backed by more funding from the government, it is organisations like these that can pull the community back on its feet, she says. Following extensive counselling with Mr Brady, Ms Wilson moved last year to Prince George, about 450km east, where she is enrolled in college. She no longer has thoughts of suicide.

Ms Tait also left the desperate economic conditions in Hazelton to find work in Vancouver.

Both have strong ties to their home community, and hope they may one day help their people.