'It's unbearable': Nunavut still experiencing a suicide epidemic, 6 years after crisis was declared

Published Dec. 2, 2021 1:00 p.m. ET
Updated Dec. 2, 2021 3:28 p.m. ET

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TORONTO -- Warning: This story deals with themes that some might find upsetting

For Iqaluit youths Joseph Ashoona and Deion Pearce, the recent suicide of a beloved friend in their hockey community was their breaking point.

“This is enough, we’re drawing the line here,” Pearce said in a joint video interview with CTVNews.ca Wednesday. “We’ve lost too many friends, close friends [and] family members.”

Both youths, founding members of the group Nunavut Youth Leaders, say Nunavut is still in the grips of a suicide crisis. They helped organize a protest last month to demand better access to mental health services for young people in the territory.

“We just decided this is our time to speak up and the whole world needs to know how we are treated because it’s not right…its unfair how we are being forced to live,” Ashoona said in the video interview.

Pearce is up front about his mental health struggles, telling CTVNews.ca that he has attempted in the past to take his own life and that there have been times where “suicide has reached a peak” in his mind.

“It’s a problem with everybody, it’s unbearable for everybody,” he said of mental health in Nunavut.

Ashoona tells a story of the legacy suicide has left in his family.

“My family has experienced suicide, and this was before I was born. My parents had a boy [and] unfortunately he took his life at a very young age, and my family has been broken ever since,” he said. “There hasn’t been a closure to anything and I feel like my family just one of the many, many families out there that hasn’t had closure for their loved ones because its just too hard, suicide is a very, very common thing up here.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, the recent water crisis in Iqaluit and the decades-long housing, health and mental health crises are all factors contributing to Nunavut’s ongoing suicide epidemic.

The suicide rate among the Inuit was approximately nine times higher than the non-Indigenous rate in Canada from 2011 to 2016, according to Statistics Canada, with 250 deaths by suicide reported.

In an email to CTVNews.ca Thursday, Nunavut’s Chief Coroner Khen Sagadraca said 36 suicides had been recorded so far in the territory as of Nov. 18, 2021.

With Statistia estimating the population of Nunavut at 39,403 in 2021, that means so far this year roughly one in 1,095 residents of the territory has died by suicide. 

“There was a picture put on social media and it was by Statistics Canada, and their photo was from 2014, and it was naming all the territories common deaths and even in 2014 Nunavut’s said suicide,” Ashoona said. “We’re now in 2021, going to 2022 and next month, and we still face the same common death -- suicide. We were wondering why Canada is not doing anything to improve [the fact] their own people are dying from suicide.”

WHAT’S BEING DONE ABOUT THE CRISIS?

The suicide rate in Nunavut is not a new phenomenon. In 2015 a “suicide crisis” was declared by then-Nunavut premier Peter Taptuna.

Sagadraca provided CTVNews.ca with data from 2015 onwards of the recorded suicides in Nunavut since the crisis was declared.

In 2015 and 2016, the territory recorded 32 suicides each year, with 2017 and 2018 recording 25 and 29 suicides, respectively.

The numbers went up in 2019, with 39 suicides, and in 2020 the territory recorded 25.

From 2015 to 2019 the recorded age range of those who died by suicide was 12 to 63 years old. From 2020 to 2021, the age range was 10 to 55 years old.

In 2015 the Government of Nunavut established the Quality of Life Secretariat (QLS), following the Nunavut Chief Coroner’s Discretionary Inquest into suicide in the territory.

In an emailed statement to CTVNews.ca, spokesperson for Nunavut’s Department of Health Danarae Sommerville said the QLS was “created to provide overall management, support, and leadership in the implementation of the Nunavut Suicide Prevention Strategy.”

The partners behind the Nunavut Suicide Prevention Strategy created in 2017 a five-year suicide prevention action plan called “Inuusivut Anninaqtuq,” providing funding and strategic planning for community-led wellness initiatives for suicide prevention, intervention and postvention, Sommerville said.

Sommerville said that in 2017 the Government of Nunavut provided a five-year investment of $35 million dollars into various suicide prevention strategies and programs, including mobile counselling services.

Pearce and Ashoona said they are “grateful” for the counselling that is available, but point out that many appointments are over the phone, which can feel impersonal. And as the in-person practitioners rotate in and out of the territory, it is hard to build trust with someone who will leave in a few months.

They also pointed out that most of the practitioners do not speak Inuktitut.

“We’re Inuk, and if I talk to another Inuk I’d be a lot more comfortable…we also don’t want our language to die,” Ashoona said, adding that sometimes there are words in Inuktitut that cannot be translated directly into English.

Both youths want to see more permanent, culturally relevant and Inuktitut-speaking therapists and mental health resources in the territory.

A 2019 report by Nunavut’s Representative for Children and Youth’s Office found that 82 per cent of Government of Nunavut service providers who participated in the review felt that the availability of mental health services for young people is not meeting their needs, and 72 per cent reported that the quality of the services available is not adequate.

Those numbers jump among the general population surveyed in the same report: 91 per cent felt the availability of mental health services for young people does not meet their needs and 83 per cent reported that the quality of the services available is not adequate.

Ashoona said his therapy comes from “enjoying our connection out on the land,” like many Inuit, and that the Western practice of talking about feelings one-on-one in therapy can still feel foreign to Indigenous peoples.

“That’s our therapy without talking,” he said. “You feel free when you’re on the land, you’re reconnecting with your people, where we came from…but not a lot of us are able to go out on the land anymore so therapy is the only option.”

“We appreciate all these helplines, the wellness facility, but its just not doing enough…nobody really knows how to cope, so they turn to substances or alcoholism,” he continued. “Our resources aren’t really there to teach us how to cope.”

Both youths advocate for Nunavut to have its own education curriculum in schools that is centred on cultural practices to help bridge that gap on what they say is a lack of education on mental health, substance abuse, and family dynamics.

A new mental health and addictions treatment centre is set to open in Iqaluit in 2025, but for smaller communities, access to mental health resources is still scarce.

Cecile Guerin, executive director of Embrace Life Council, a non-profit suicide prevention organization in Nunavut, told CTVNews.ca in an email that the answer is “pretty straightforward” when talking about what the northern communities need.

“The Territory needs more funding to meet the needs of many social issues and the gaps in housing, mental health, education,” Guerin wrote, adding that Nunavut is short of housing by 3,000 units. “A lot of families live in overcrowded housing, the situation is very bad in some communities.”

While campaigning in the last federal election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at his stop in Iqaluit that the federal government would invest $360 million for housing in Nunavut as part of an overall $2 billion commitment to Indigenous groups across Canada, and $1.4 billion in particular in mental health supports for Inuit, First Nation and Metis people nationally.

Guerin said that due to lack of resources, if someone lives in a small community and needs special health care or mental health care they often have to travel to a larger community or go south to see a specialist.

“We live in a very isolated area, a big space for 25 communities, [and] all communities are connected by air only, the cost of living is extremely high and the resources are very low,” she continued, citing food prices, transportation issues and access to services. “We do not have the same resources that all Canadians have access to because of the isolation and the lack of funding.”

Sommerville said suicide prevention requires a co-ordinated approach to addressing social inequities that exist in Nunavut, and that historically, a too-narrow focus has been taken by governments to address the health status of Inuit specifically.

“The crisis in Nunavut must be viewed with a broader holistic lens,” she wrote. “As such, social determinants of health such as housing, education, and food security are paramount to the wellbeing and mental health of Nunavummiut.”

“The federal government must appropriately fund these services and related infrastructure in Nunavut to ensure they are on par with the rest of Canada.”

CONFRONTING THE LEGACY OF GENOCIDE

Both Ashoona and Pearce trace a direct line from Canada’s historical colonialism and legacy of genocide against Indigenous peoples to the problems facing their community today.

Ashoona, while recounting the history of the explorers, the whalers and colonists as the precursors to how the traditional, nomadic Inuit way of life would be choked off, cited the historic slaughter of the Inuit sled and hunting dogs by the RCMP and other authorities as one of the defining collective traumas that has been passed down through generations.

“There's people still alive up here to this day that watched their dogs get killed…their only way of survival died,” he said. “I don't see how the government wants me to be okay mentally when they literally killed our way of life and our culture.”

“There's just many different factors that lead to mental health issues,” Pearce said. “We have a housing crisis going on. We have a water crisis and this pandemic going on and just things are just getting more difficult…we're not getting the help we deserve, and we're just tired of living this way.”

Ashoona, fighting tears, said it boils down to this: “We’re sick of being in pain, we don’t want to survive, we want to live.”

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The following is a list of resources and hotlines dedicated to supporting people in crisis:

National Residential School Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Indian Residential School Resolution Health Support Program, Northern Region — 1-800-464-8106

Hope for Wellness Helpline (English, French, Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut): 1-855-242-3310

Embrace Life Council hotline: 1-800-265-3333

Trans Lifeline: 1-877-330-6366

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868

For help in Inuktitut, you can call the Kamatsiaqtut Nunavut Helpline at 1-867-979-3333 or, toll-free from Nunavik or Nunavut outside Iqaluit, at 1-800-265-3333.


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