A Suicide Crisis in Canada’s Unforgiving North

In Nunavut, suicide rates are a staggering 10 times the national average. For the past two weeks, Canada’s northernmost territory has been laying the crisis bare in a coroner's inquest.
September 25, 2015, 8:25pm
Photo of Clyde Akumalik via Facebook

When talking about his son, Joanasie Akumalik oscillates between the past and present tense.

"He liked to listen to music, he loves watching NHL hockey, he played a lot of games with his Xbox," Akumalik told VICE News. "He was a typical Inuit young man."

Clyde Akumalik died by suicide in 2013, at the age of 25.

This week, on the day his son would have celebrated his 27th birthday, Akumalik stood in front of an Iqaluit court to plead for the territory to develop a better suicide prevention plan. For the past two weeks, Nunavut health care workers, government officials and affected families have been testifying at a coroner's inquest into Nunavut's suicide crisis.

In Canada's northernmost territory, suicide rates are, roughly, a staggering 10 times the national average. The problem is particularly severe among the region's young men.

In 2013 — the year Clyde died — officials recorded 45 suicides, one of them an 11-year-old boy. The RCMP warns that figure doesn't take into account the number of unsuccessful suicide attempts, of which they received about 59 reports. This is the highest number of suicides recorded since the territory — home to only 35,000 people — was founded in 1999.

Akumalik, whose emotional testimony brought the jury to tears, says he's hoping the outcome will be a mix of feasible short and long-term recommendations. "I just wanted to send a message, my message across to the jury and to the people in the courtroom, and let them know the feeling I had," he says.

Nunavut officials are also hoping the process will yield new solutions to the region's struggle with suicide. But this isn't a new effort: extremely high suicide rates have been an issue for years, and in 2010, a working group including government officials and RCMP representatives published an action plan to target the emergency.

"Nunavummiut have been exposed so directly and repeatedly to suicide that they have come to accept the situation as normal," the report stated. "Despite this, it has been extremely difficult to talk openly about this issue in Nunavut, whether on the personal, family, community, or political level."

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The group recommended increased spending in mental health services, more resources devoted to research and data collection, and better training for frontline healthcare workers. The price tag to address the crisis that has cost 479 lives in the past 15 years was slated at a modest $1 million in new spending.

But NDP candidate and longtime Nunavut politician Jack Anawak says despite the relatively low cost, virtually none of the ideas presented in the 2010 plan were never implemented.

"In all areas, whether it was in schools, through conference or through workshops, none of that ever really occurred," he told VICE News. "People have been waiting patiently and meanwhile a lot of young people have been killing themselves."

Part of the impediment, Anawak says, is a general lack of understanding of suicide, and of Nunavut's unique cultural context.

A look at the region's history shows that in 1960, suicide was nearly unheard of. The politician says the growing suicide emergency can be linked back to the rapid lifestyle change Nunavimmiut, as locals are known, have undergone, to a way of living worlds away from the hunter-gatherer tradition Anawak grew up with.

"There is also the issue of colonialism, there is the issue of migration from Quebec to High Arctic, and of course there's residential school abuses that occurred which I think had a lot to do with the trauma that people suffer here," he adds.

He says that in order to be effective, the recommendations have to take into consideration the culture's needs and local expertise. "There has not been any real program put in place that would work for the people of Nunavut, programs that would be listened to by those people contemplating suicide."

"Whether it's the advice of elders, whether it's utilisation of people that are well-respected in the communities, or the utilisation of the knowledge of culture that people have up here," he says. "Instead people are coming up here without any prior knowledge of the culture and trying to put into place programs that don't fit Nunavut."

While representatives from the Federal government were not present at the inquest, Anawak says he hopes the next government will put in place some of the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Committee report. "Those were put together by people who know about the kind of conditions we face," he says.

Akumalik says he's hoping the recommendations issued by the coroner's inquest will also help change the status quo.

"I'm hoping that first of all, our governments, the territorial and the federal governments, must accept those recommendations, and confirm they are willing to work with them," he says. "And I'm hoping that some money will be available to help people like me tackle suicide prevention."

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