Canada does not have a complete picture of the suicide crisis among Indigenous communities, with neither the federal government nor the largest organization representing First Nations keeping track. And while Canada’s health minister says it would be helpful to have exact numbers on the epidemic, she says it’s not a top priority as First Nations continue to grapple with new tragic instances of youth taking their own lives.
“I would say certainly, ideally it would be helpful to know and it’s something that we need to work toward,” Jane Philpott, the federal health minister, said in an interview with VICE News. She said that the topic of data collection on the number of suicides has come up during her meetings with First Nations leaders. “It’s fair to say that that’s not their top priority right now,” she said, and as a result it isn’t being pursued at this point.
“Obviously [a] big priority for leaders in the communities is getting at the root causes of why their young people have lost hope. And there’s so much work to be done just in terms of addressing issues of justice and social equity,” she said.
No federal agency, nor the Assembly of First Nations, an advocacy group representing around one million First Nations peoples across the country, is keeping count of the suicide deaths. A number of other First Nations organizations in other provinces did not immediately respond to requests for numbers, while a spokesperson for the First Nations Health Authority in British Columbia confirmed that it also does not maintain data on the issue there, but has “a data access request underway” for the information.
“Obviously [a] big priority for leaders in the communities is getting at the root causes of why their young people have lost hope.”
One of the only organizations that’s keeping real time data on the issue is the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nations communities in northern Ontario, and which has been hit hard recently. Four youth from the fly-in Pikangikum First Nation have died by suicide in the past two weeks, while Wapekeka First Nation has lost three 12-year-old girls to suicide so far this year.
A NAN spokesperson told VICE News it has counted 22 suicide deaths so far in 2017, including from Pikangikum and Wapekeka, for a total of 543 since it began keeping count in 1986.
There are many factors that make it difficult to collect death and suicide data on a national level as it relates to ethnicity. Health Canada wrote in an email that while it receives and responds to reports from nursing stations in First Nations, it’s unable to systematically track suicides rates in the communities for a number of reasons including the fact that the reporting of suicide attempts or suicides is not legally mandated under provincial public health legislation.
Philpott, like countless First Nations, Métis, and Inuit leaders, links high suicide rates and the many other ongoing health crisis on reserves to the abusive legacy of the government’s residential school regime and other colonial structures.
“The amount of work that needs to be done on reconciliation and addressing social determinants of health is what we are hearing from communities as their top priorities,” Philpott explained.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nations communities in northern Ontario, has seen 22 suicides so far this year.
The disproportionate rates of suicide among First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples compared to non-Indigenous people in Canada has been well-documented — suicide rates among Inuit communities can range from six to 25 times higher than the general population.
An AFN spokesperson pointed to a June 2017 report by the federal standing committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs that lists a number of recent reports of suicides within Indigenous communities, but not a total tally.
According to the 2017 report entitled Breaking Point: The Suicide Crisis in Indigenous Communities, data on suicide rates, in general, are likely an underestimation because of inconsistent reporting practices. For example, where deaths are categorized as accidents and not suicides due to misinformation or stigma. It’s also not required to report ethnicity on death certificates.
“As such, these results cannot be compared, making it challenging to provide comprehensive statistical trends across all Indigenous communities,” the report states.
Statistics Canada does release numbers on general deaths and suicides across Canada, however they’re often years out of date. The deaths and suicides reports are based on data it gets from the Canadian Vital Statistics Death Database, which is a collection of death information compiled annually from every provincial and territorial vital statistics registry. There is typically not a mechanism in these registries to identify ethnicity.
There are many factors that make it difficult to collect death and suicide data on a national level as it relates to ethnicity.
A 2009 Statistics report found there were 3,890 suicides in Canada — a rate of 11.5 per 100,000 people.
Mohan Kumar, a Statistics Canada research analyst from the department’s social and aboriginal statistics division, said its most recent publicly available data on the issue is based on data from 2005 to 2007. Papers released in 2013 found that there were 56 deaths by suicide among female children and youth in “high-percentage First Nations identity areas” in Canada, which could include people living both on and off-reserve. That averaged out to 25.5 suicides per 100,000 people. And the rate was higher among male children and youth in areas identified as predominantly First Nations: 62 deaths by suicide during those two years for a rate of 30 per 100,000 people.
Kumar said the department will be releasing new reports on suicides among Indigenous communities in the near future, and that will be based on 2006 census data linked to mortality records from that year and 2011.