EDITORIAL: Nunavut February 06, 2012 - 5:41 pm

Quality care for those at risk in Nunavut


On either June 8 or June 9, 2001, a 52-year-old elementary school principal in Iqaluit named Hal Richards sat down inside his staff housing unit and used a .308 Winchester rifle to fire a bullet through his head.

Following an outbreak of near-hysterical gossip and misinformation, much of it propagated by Nunavut teachers and their union, the coroner’s office held a full-blown inquest into his death: complete with jury, lawyers, witnesses, and the Chief Coroner of the Northwest Territories presiding.

The issues? A big one was whether officials at the Department of Education owed Richards a duty of care and if so, whether they failed to provide it. Richards, you see, was the subject of an RCMP investigation because of a sexual abuse allegation made about a week before his death by the mother of a child attending Nakasuk School.

The teachers’ union alleged the GN, by ordering him not to talk to his co-workers, inflicted undue distress upon Richards. They suggested his isolation, supposedly forced upon him by the GN, may have triggered his suicide.

As revealed by witnesses at the inquest, it turned out that Richards made contact with many people during his final days, by telephone and otherwise.

But this didn’t prevent the eruption of a furor generated by the death of a mature, reasonably well-educated and affluent adult who had access to many resources, including the support of a well-funded teachers’ union.

And at the heart of that furor there stood, as we’ve said, one big issue: did the government fail to support and care for this person who died by suicide?

Since 2002, about 300 Nunavut residents, mostly Inuit, have died by suicide also. But unlike the death of the school principal, most of those deaths were followed by utter silence, as if those people had never lived. Only a tiny handful ever became the subject of an inquiry or an inquest.

And until recently, few people asked how many of those who died by suicide had attempted to gain access to help but were stymied by bureaucratic screw-ups. Few people asked about how many deaths occurred because of failures to provide access to quality mental health services, especially services that are available to Canadians living in other regions of the country. Few people asked if the Government of Nunavut bore a duty to provide such services and if so, to what extent the GN failed to observe that duty.

For example, by our rough count, about 17 children aged 10 to 14 died by suicide in the years following the Hal Richards incident. Roughly 85 youths aged 15 to 19 died by suicide within that same period.

Given their age, it’s reasonable to assume that during the school year, many of these young people were in more or less continual contact with teachers and other school employees. For at least part of the school year, many would have been in the care of the territorial government. And yet, until recently, few people inside or outside the GN acknowledged any duty to monitor and respond to signs of emotional distress among children and youth.

In the years following April 1, 1999, most Nunavut officials shrugged off questions about these issues by mouthing platitudes. You’ve all heard them: “the government can’t do it all” or “it’s up to the communities to find the solution.”

But it’s clear now, as if should have been then, that this attitude masked an abandonment of duty, the duty to provide mental health services at a quality enjoyed by other Canadians, and supplied in way that respects and acknowledges the languages and cultural identities of Nunavut residents.

There are signs the GN’s attitude may be changing, however. In the action plan that sets out how and when the territorial government’s suicide prevention plan will be carried out, much of the work involves finding out where the service gaps lie and figuring out how to plug them.

And in that plan, the GN also appears to acknowledge a duty to children and youth.

For example, by January 2012 — that’s this past month — GN staff were to have agreed on a way for education staff to refer children at risk to the health and social services department. By March 2012, the health department is supposed to improve its ability to respond “quickly and effectively” to suicidal behaviour by children.

Given that a 12-year-old boy died by suicide in Kugaaruk this past November, one of 33 Nunavut residents to die that way in 2011, such actions by government are essential.

It’s also essential that the regular people of Nunavut and the regular MLAs who represent them press the GN for progress reports on the implementation of the suicide prevention action plan. This work ought to be easy to keep track of. It’s not much more than a simple to-do list, stating what the government has committed to do by certain specified dates.

Unlike school principals, most regular people in Nunavut don’t enjoy the protection of special interest groups like unions. If we want quality care and support, we must also get quality representation from elected officials. JB