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Seven Stories From the Suicide Epidemic Plaguing Canada’s Indigenous Youth

A new report from Alberta's child and youth advocate was released in the midst of a national outcry over an astounding rash of suicides and suicide attempts by young people across the country living on First Nations reserves.
Jóvenes caminando en Attawapiskat, Ontario. (Imagen por Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Cedar and Sage grew up in a home on a First Nations reserve in Alberta plagued by violence, neglect, and substance abuse. The brothers found respite in their hobbies; Cedar, the middle of five children, enjoyed snowboarding and skateboarding, while Sage, the youngest, loved music. He dreamed of one day becoming a famous Aboriginal violinist, and later, a rap artist.

The brothers were first taken away from their parents by child welfare services as young children, and spent years being shuffled around to extended family members and foster homes on the reserve. In foster care, Cedar began getting physically aggressive with Sage.


But with help from a youth worker, things started getting better between the boys as they became immersed in aspects of their culture: hunting and fishing for Cedar, and traditional dancing for Sage. That didn't last long. The boys eventually stopped going to school and started abusing substances. After spending time in a group home, Sage became anxious and began to drink heavily. He would punch holes through walls during fits of rage.

After his 15th birthday, Sage was found dead in his family home. Cedar felt responsible for his brother's death and was overcome with guilt. Four months later at 18 years old, Cedar also committed suicide.

The boys are among seven Aboriginal youths in Alberta from ages 14 to 18 who killed themselves between 2013 and 2014, and who are subjects of a report released Monday by the province's child and youth advocate, Del Graff, that probes the reasons why suicide rates are so high among Aboriginal youth. The names of all the youths were changed in the report by Graff, in consultation with the subjects' families, in order to protect their privacy.

The report is released in the midst of a national outcry over a rash of suicides and suicide attempts by young people across the country living on First Nations reserves, a number of which have recently called states of emergencies over the matter.

The attention followed revelations that more than 100 people on the remote Attawapiskat reserve in Ontario tried to kill themselves since September, with 30 of those occurring just this March.


Related: More Than 100 Attempts, One Death: The Face of a Tiny Canadian Community's Suicide Crisis

Suicide is the cause of more than one third of all deaths among young Aboriginal people, according to the report. And between the ages of 10 and 19, Aboriginal youth living on reserves are five to six times more likely to commit suicide than youth in the general population. It's a phenomenon that's grown out of centuries of abuse and destruction committed against Indigenous peoples in Canada.

"Meaningful action is long overdue," Graff writes in the 85-page report entitled Toward a Better Tomorrow: Addressing the Challenge of Aboriginal Youth Suicide. "Their deaths by suicide are heartbreaking and focuses attention on what can only be described as a terrible tragedy that is occurring among Aboriginal young people."

The youngest person in the report is 14-year-old Asinay, a boy of First Nations and Métis heritage who was described as a "gentle giant." He was polite, articulate, confident and friendly. But Like Cedar and Sage, he had a troubled relationship with his parents, who abused alcohol and drugs. According to the report, he came to fixate on death, and began cutting his arms — one time even stabbing himself in the chest. Interventions from a childcare worker brought some positive changes, but it ultimately proved unsuccessful. He took his own life following an argument with his mother and grandmother.


Morley, who lived in an urban part of Alberta, off-reserve, was 15 years old when she committed suicide. The report says she took great pride in her appearance, cared deeply for younger brother and longed to live at home with her mother and siblings. She, too, had a tumultuous childhood and started drinking, and was in an abusive relationship before she turned 13. Around that time, her mother had given birth to a baby, whom Morley had to feed "sterilized water" because the family had no baby formula. Morley began cutting herself, and told a provincial caseworker that this "made her feel good."

Even though she had tried to kill herself on multiple occasions, she did not fit the criteria to be diagnosed with a mental health issue. Instead, her behavior was associated with stress. She was found dead in her bedroom.

Like Morley, Kari was 15 years old when she killed herself. An affectionate and quiet girl with a "wonderful sense of humor," Kari was raised by her father, who was dealing with his own suicidal thoughts after he lost a family member. She spent some time in foster care. When Kari was 11, back living with her parents, her father tried to hang himself in their home. And a few years later, Kari told an after-hours child intervention office that she also wanted to die.

Shortly after that, Kari's father found her in the basement. She died the next morning after receiving medical treatment.


The report's author says the department compiled these stories in order to try to understand the motivations underpinning the suicides that have plagued Indigenous communities.

'Racism and classicism were at the heart of systematic attempts by the federal government and others, to assimilate Aboriginal Peoples.'

"Review will shine a spotlight on this serious concern and motivate governments, communities and service providers to take real action that will prevent incidents of Aboriginal youth suicide and enhance the safety and well-being of Aboriginal children and youth," the report says.

It goes on to describe the case of 15-year-old Victoria, a shy girl who knew how to voice her needs and wants and who was deeply protective of her younger siblings. Her mother abused alcohol and had tried to kill herself twice. Child services had to intervene "extensively" throughout Victoria's childhood, and she and her siblings lived in foster care for a number of years. A few years later, her mother died of a drug overdose. Victoria was adopted by her aunt, who also attempted to harm herself, and physically abused Victoria and her sibling.

Victoria was placed with a foster family, but eventually moved back in with her aunt, around which time she herself overdosed on prescription medication and was hospitalized. She began to split her time between her aunt's and a foster home, and would write to her mother in a journal. She spoke about suicide as a way of "reconnecting" with her mother. She wanted to be adopted. Victoria was then found dead in her foster home.


The oldest person in the report, Jacob, was a respectful young man who idolized his father, the report said. Like others in the report, his mother committed suicide when he was very young. By the time he was seven years old, he started receiving medical treatment for anxiety and depression. At 15, he had already tried to commit suicide twice. He started to turn his life around after the birth of his first child, but a year later, he once again became depressed, and the three of them were homeless.

Just before his 19th birthday, his uncle died by suicide and soon after, Jacob did so too.

The cycle of suicide and depression is linked to a compendium of factors, the report notes, but it highlights that family members of several of the youth mentioned in the report experienced the atrocities committed in the residential school system, dating back to the 19th century, in which Aboriginal children were abused, mistreated, died, and where spiritual and traditional practices that bound their communities were rooted out.

"Canadian history reflects that there was significant cultural stress placed on Aboriginal Peoples because of their contact with colonial interests," the report continues. "Racism and classicism were at the heart of systematic attempts by the federal government and others, to assimilate Aboriginal Peoples."

"Even today, social injustice and social exclusion continue to be issues for Aboriginal Peoples in the modern country of Canada."


The report puts forward 12 recommendations including a suicide prevention strategy funded by the province as well as specialized caseworkers to help assist struggling families, including those who have lost a loved one to suicide.

Related: A Suicide Crisis in Canada's Unforgiving North

But it's unclear when, or even how, such recommendations will be implemented. According to the CBC, the provincial government "acknowledged the tragedy of Indigenous youth suicide but offered no concrete plans or schedule for addressing the issue."

"The stories of these young people are heartbreaking and are reflective of some very uncomfortable realities of our society," Irfan Sabir, Alberta's minister of human services, said in a statement, while promising to implement the recommendations.

Graff concludes his report by stating that even though suicide is complex, it's preventable.

"What is required is a willingness to make this issue a priority and to devote the resources needed to address it effectively," he writes.

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne