In Canada’s north, a suicide epidemic – by Colin Alexander (National Post – September 10, 2014)

The National Post is Canada’s second largest national paper.

Colin Alexander was publisher of the Yellowknife News of the North and senior consultant for education for the Ontario Royal Commission on the Northern Environment.

Today, September 10, is World Suicide Prevention Day — a day with special significance for traditional Indians, Inuit and the Canadian North.

In 2013, there were 45 suicides in Nunavut, almost entirely among the Inuit population of 27,000. That’s a new statistical peak since the founding of the territory in 1999. That rate comes to 166 per hundred thousand. If this pattern played out in Ottawa, with a population of 900,000, the city’s annual rate would be about 1,500, or four per day.

The suicide rate in Nunavut is almost five times the world’s highest national rate of 35 per hundred thousand in Lithuania. There, many of the suicides derive from financial problems among older and working-age people. But among Canada’s Indian and Inuit, the incidence is concentrated among male youth, with one suicide, in 2013, of a boy of 11, in Repulse Bay.

The overall suicide rate in Canada has been holding fairly steady at about 12 per hundred thousand. So the Nunavut rate is running 14 times the national average. By comparison, the rate of shooting homicides in Canada holds steady at under two per hundred thousand (with a significant proportion of them gang-related, and also disproportionately among aboriginals in dysfunctional communities.)

The 1995 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples wrote of the underlying causation in its report on suicide, Choosing Life: “Aboriginal youth described both the exclusion from the dominant society and the alienation from the now idealized but once-real life on the land that is stereotypically associated with aboriginality. The terrible emptiness of feeling strung between two cultures and psychologically at home in neither has been described.”

The first foundational truth here is that the traditional lifestyle of popular mythology no longer exists. You can add up the entire economic contributions from fishing, hunting, trapping, handicrafts and tourism and you end up with little more than a marginal (although of course useful) addition. Food insecurity, malnutrition, poor health and overall deprivation of children are a serious problem in these communities.

The second truth is that Indians and Inuit are largely excluded from employment in the mainstream economy, and in remote communities they hardly ever fill the few skilled jobs as nurses or police officers. Too few aboriginals have trade certification, even though making things is part of the traditional culture.

There are few suicides or disappearances among those who are educated and skilled, and employed in well-paid jobs. The evidence is also compelling that those who have marketable skills for work in natural-resource-related jobs generally welcome development.

There are many examples around the world where education successfully brought people into the modern world. South Korea in 1960 had a per capita income lower than its Canadian aboriginal counterpart. Yet today, South Korea is a world leader in many fields. Compared with a Canadian school year of about 180 days, in South Korea it’s 220.

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