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Nunavut’s Suicide Epidemic

By Nikki Wiart

In a culture that thrives on oral history, there are some stories that are never told. Inuit youth are dying by suicide at an alarming rate in northern Canada — over the past 20 years, Inuit suicide rates have been about 10 times 110 deaths per 100,000 people the Canadian average, or 110 deaths per 100,000 people. But because of the stigma surrounding suicide, their only memory is in statistics like these. 

The Arctic is an unforgiving place to live. It’s cold; it’s isolated; and it’s completely sunless for six months of the year. And while those conditions seem enough to make the sanest person slip, Inuit people have been dealing with them for thousands of years. Yet it’s only in the past 40 years that suicide rates among young people up North have skyrocketed. 

According to early 19th century Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) files uncovered by researcher Jack Hicks, a former suicide prevention advisor for the Nunavut government, 27 Inuit people died by suicide between 1920 and 1945 in the Northwest Territories, which before 1999, Nunavut was part of. Only one of the 27 was under 18 years old. These numbers line up with oral histories. 

But then something changed. Since the mid-1970s, about 20 years after European immigrants forced the Inuit from their land and onto settlements, suicide has been a new and tragic part of everyday life. A culture that relied on its connection to the land began relying on the government to supply basic necessities. A people that taught its children through stories had their children taken away and taught in residential schools, where they were often physically, mentally, and sexually abused. Children ripped away from their families, raised by strangers, and caught between two very different cultures, grew up with intense memories of trauma and no sense of belonging –feelings that have permeated through four decades of Inuit youth, especially in Nunavut, where 85 percent of the population is indigenous.

In 2011, the Auditor General of Canada found that the Government of Nunavut was not doing enough to protect children from abuse and neglect. According to an Inuit Health Survey done in 2008, Inuit youth who had been abused were “more likely to experience emotional distress and depression, and are more likely to attempt suicide as adults.” Forty-eight percent of Inuit adults surveyed had considered suicide, and 29 percent of respondents had attempted suicide at some point in their lives. Nunavut’s Suicide Prevention Strategy, drafted in 2010, promises more research, more mental health services, and more prevention training. Though while it looks good on paper, youth suicide continues to plague the territory. 

As of June 1 this year, 16 Nunavummiut people have died by suicide. Last year, that number reached 27. And the year before that, 45 Nunavummiut people killed themselves – 13 1/2 times the national average. An inquest into that terrifyingly high number was scheduled for September 2014, but has been continually delayed. It’s now scheduled for this upcoming September, where between September 14 and September 29, six jury members will hear five different suicide cases from 2013 and deliberate on how those deaths could have been prevented. 

For years, there has been a push for a national strategy to address suicide in Canada, and in 2012, the Canadian government passed the Federal Framework for Suicide Prevention Act. Since then, not a lot has been done to further the strategy and address the suicide epidemic in Canada’s north. It was a point included in the June release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Executive Summary. The TRC called on the federal government to “close the gaps in health outcomes between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities, and to publish annual progress reports and assess long-term trends”—including suicide. But, like the other 93 points in the summary, the federal government has yet to make a concrete response. The truth is out, but there has been no reconciliation.

In a report released earlier in 2015, Hicks says suicide intervention needs to be “directed at the entire community… not only focusing on individuals who are at risk.” Policy-wise, there needs to be less focus on the act of suicide itself, and more on the factors that brought the youth to that point. Like residential schools, children are still being taken away from their parents and placed in the homes of strangers, lending to that feeling of “futurelessness” so many report. The money being spent on suicide prevention and intervention needs to go toward programs that connect youth to their culture and to their communities, rather than isolate them because of their mental health history. 

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Nikki Wiart is a freelance journalist living in Edmonton. She has written for CBC Aboriginal, The Walrus, BuzzFeed Canada, and Global News.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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