The night before 11-year-old Antonio ‘Rex’ Uttak died by suicide, he’d spent the evening playing with his cousins in Naujaat, Nunavut. His family described him as a happy boy who loved giving his mother hugs, according to news reports on testimony of the Inuk boy’s death.
Nunavut’s chief coroner learned Rex had been living in overcrowded housing. His 16-year-old sister had been murdered less than a year before and his older brother had died by suicide. Rex’s mother and grandparents shared their boy’s story during an inquest into Nunavut’s staggeringly high rate of suicide, held in Iqaluit on Sept. 14.
Rex’s heartbreaking reality is one shared by many Indigenous youth in the territory and across Canada. The suicide rate in Nunavut is highest among Inuit boys aged 15-19, a rate 40 times the national average, according to coroner’s records, and one of the highest in the world. The suicide rate among First Nations youth across Canada is five to seven times the national average, according to Health Canada.
In its basket of election promises, the new Liberal government pledged to provide Canadians with improved access to quality mental-health services. Nunavut MP and Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Hunter Tootoo, is calling for that to include a national suicide prevention strategy in order to address high Indigenous suicide rates. While no promises have been made, others are following in Tootoo’s hopes that the Liberal government will step up to the plate.
“Canada is bizarrely behind most developed countries in not having a strategy,” says Jack Hicks, a Saskatchewan-based researcher who helped create Nunavut’s 2010 suicide prevention strategy and testified at the territory’s inquest this fall.
“There are national strategies in place around things like HIV-AIDS and, with respect to that, the delivery of programs is a provincial-territorial responsibility,” he says. “But I’ve never seen that as meaning that the federal government can’t take a position.”
The call for a national suicide prevention strategy in Canada is not new. Advocacy organizations, families and politicians have been urging the federal government to address the issue for years. A National Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy was created in 2005 with renewed funding in 2010 for an additional five years, until the end of 2015.
In 2010, NDP MP Megan Leslie introduced a bill calling for a national suicide strategy, while interim Liberal leader Bob Rae pushed for action on the issue again the next year. Efforts to create a federal strategy ultimately failed, despite the fact it remains the second leading cause of death for Canadians aged 15-34. The Conservative government at the time said it was already taking action by increasing funding to mental health programs.
Provincial and territorial suicide prevention strategies have been enacted with varying degrees of success in Canada. While Quebec has reduced its youth suicide rate by more than 50 per cent since 1999, for example, Nunavut has struggled to implement its strategy due to lack of funding.
Hicks says a federal strategy could organize a national centre of expertise, promote best practices, fund research on the underlying factors contributing to suicide and implement intervention training.
A successful national strategy would also account for the different experiences between Indigenous communities, he says.
“It’s important to note that not all Indigenous communities have high rates of suicide — not at all,” Hicks says. “But all of the communities in Canada with really high rates of suicide are Indigenous.”
The determinants of health — a person or community’s social and economic conditions — play a critical role in mental well-being. The historic trauma caused by colonization, residential schools and the poverty that goes along with it have deteriorated social and economic conditions among many Indigenous communities.
“When communities have greater self-determination and self-governance, you see lower rates of suicide,” says Chris Mushquash, Canada research chair in Indigenous mental health and addiction, and a member of Pays Plat First Nation in Ontario.
As a clinical psychologist at Dilico Anishinabek Family Care in Thunder Bay, Mushquash draws on an Indigenous mental health framework to pull people towards wellness. Reconnecting with one’s culture has proven to help achieve this, he says.
“It’s about connecting young people again with their identities and giving them the kind of meaning, belonging and purpose that are going to carry them through,” Mushquash says.
How that’s done varies from community to community. But Mushquash says evidence shows culture-based healing methods can help Indigenous peoples deal with mental health and addiction.
Ash Courchene, from Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba and co-ordinator of Carleton University’s Aboriginal Service Centre, has been running an Indigenous mental-health talk series on campus since September. It’s a way to bring Indigenous students together to work through challenges such as addiction, mental health, depression, suicide and intergenerational trauma.
“We try to develop strategies on how to support ourselves and others around us,” Courchene says. “A lot of it is grounding oneself in the community for support.”
As someone who has overcome addiction, Courchene knows the importance of having a positive support system. He hopes the talk series helps others and contributes to healthier communities.
“The effects of colonialism and everything else tore our nations apart and so we have to look within ourselves to rebuild that,” Courchene says. “I think this is one step to doing that. Healthy mind, healthy community, healthy nation.”
Kim Matheson, director of the Canadian Health Adaptations Innovations Mobilization (CHAIM) Centre at Carleton, says it’s critical to understand the historic trauma Indigenous peoples have experienced in Canada. Issues that contribute to high suicide rates and mental health challenges in Indigenous communities — such as poverty, addiction and violence — are direct symptoms of systemic discrimination, she says.
“You have this really vicious cycle,” says Matheson, who conducts research on intergenerational trauma in Indigenous communities in northwestern Ontario. “Kids continue to be exposed to very difficult early life experiences.”
What Indigenous youth need, she says, are opportunities to develop leadership skills, build positive self-esteem and a sense of hope.
A national suicide prevention strategy, and mental health policies that provide these opportunities and account for distinct Indigenous experiences, are essential, Matheson says.
“There have been attempts to develop these in past, but very little invested in making them happen,” she says. “I do think we need a strategy.”
Suicide crisis among Nunavut Inuit
By Kirsten Fenn | The Indigenous youth suicide rate in Canada is five to seven times...