How Canada is working with indigenous peoples to prevent suicide

Nearly two decades ago, Wayne State University professor Michael Kral began studying tiny Arctic settlements to find out how Inuit villagers there tried to prevent suicide.

Every week, villagers in Qikiqtarjuaq gathered in the local gym and asked how they could help each other, and their housing committee removed every home’s closet rod, the most common device used when a villager tried to commit suicide. And in the village of Igloolik, a grant-funded community center gave young people a place to play billiards, watch movies and listen to stories told by village elders.

“The message was clear — we don’t want any suicides,” Kral said.

It took time, but the villagers’ work helped.

For years, Qikiqtarjuaq was suicide-free, and since 2010, there have been eight suicides in Igloolik. And over the last few decades, the villages experienced periods without any suicides, despite on-going unemployment and poverty, Kral said. The most important factor behind those prevention efforts was that villagers controlled community wellbeing, he said.

“Don’t give them these Western suicide prevention programs that don’t fit with their culture,” Kral said. “Let them do it themselves.”

For decades, suicide has disproportionately risen among Canada’s indigenous population. Historical trauma from federal policies that removed people from ancestral lands and forced them to shed traditions and language, paired with deep poverty and isolation, are often cited as contributing factors for the nation’s indigenous communities experiencing a suicide rate far higher than elsewhere in Canada.

Earlier this month, the First Nation community of Attawapiskat was the latest to declare a state of emergency after 11 youths attempted suicide.

In 2015, the Mushkegowuk FIrst Nation issued a report that explored its “suicide pandemic” after hundreds of its youth had attempted suicide or thought about doing so. And three years ago, the Neskantaga First Nation leaders announced a state of emergency that remains in place today.

But research suggests that Igloolik’s and Qikiqtarjuaq’s success might be built upon elsewhere.

In a 2008 study, Michael Chandler from the University of British Columbia found that among that Canadian province’s 196 First Nations, the risk of youth suicide was “strongly associated” with a loss of cultural identity and a lack of control communities held over services, such as education, law enforcement and government.

The Canadian government is putting this idea to the test. This year, the Canadian government is spending $271 million to “support culturally-relevant mental wellness programs and activities,” such as risk-factor awareness education and crisis response, according to a written statement from Health Canada, the country’s healthcare agency.

The government also works with indigenous peoples to identify problems, develop solutions and ultimately prevent suicide through the First Nations Mental Wellness Continuum Framework.

In Kimberly Masson’s work with the non-profit Embrace Life Council in the sprawling Canadian territory of Nunavut, suicide prevention must start at the grassroots level.

That is because the greatest challenge in her work isn’t the number of people, but the geography. The territory’s 32,000 residents are mostly Inuit and spread across 808,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of western Europe. The territory’s communities are largely unconnected by roads, she said, and diesel generators power homes.

Food that hasn’t been hunted or fished is expensive, she said, and a 22-pound bag of flour can cost as much as $60 in the High Arctic. Jobs are also tough to find.

“Transitioning to the wage economy has not been easy in a place where there’s not a lot of wages,” she said.

Organizing suicide prevention efforts for such remote communities is vital, she said. Her two-person staff offers regional suicide helplines and resources for frontline workers about suicide, mental health, violence, addiction and bullying.

“Empowering communities has to be the goal of any program that’s going on,” Masson said. “The community has to sustain itself.”

Editor’s note: This story corrects the number of Igloolik’s suicides based on the source receiving new information and clarified additional details.

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