Aboriginal suicide: cause and effect



Many Aboriginal communities are in severe crisis, as reported, for example, in a series of articles by Elizabeth Payne in the Ottawa Citizen about drug use in northern Ontario.

Similarly, it would be a truism to say that national Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq is right to express her concerns about suicide among Aboriginal people at the recent World Health Assembly in Geneva.

Northern Canada has the world’s highest suicide rate, mostly concentrated among young people and especially among males aged 12 to 26. There were eleven suicides in 2011 among the Inuit population in Iqaluit, numbering about 5,000 out of a total population of 7,000.

That rate, at 220 per hundred thousand, is almost four times the world’s highest country rate in 2009 of 61, in Lithuania.

Over the past decade this rate of suicide has held steady throughout Nunavut and arctic Quebec, and the related problem of crime, especially violent crime, far exceeds the national average.

Also, overall physical health in northern communities has been deteriorating cumulatively, especially as it relates to obesity, diabetes and problems connected with poor diet and lack of exercise. Drug addiction and alcoholism result in an alarming number of babies born with dependency and irremediable disability.

As they grow older, they are at the highest risk of suicide or trouble with the law. These children become wards of the state, and not the doctors, geologists, mining engineers, marine biologists and trades people needed in their own land.

I believe the health minister is mistaken to think that suicide is primarily a health issue. That assumption confuses symptoms with causation. To use an analogy from Africa, water-borne diseases are not caused by a lack of antibiotics but by dirty water.

Contrary to popular belief, anecdotal evidence suggests that suicide is considerably less likely where one or more parents or grandparents was at least partly educated in a residential school or in southern Canada.

It also suggests that suicide is far less prevalent among those who have rewarding jobs, or among teenagers on track for post-secondary education and correspondingly good employment prospects.

I believe that the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples’ report, Choosing Life, published in 1995, correctly identified the essence of the challenge in this passage:

“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 in fiction and in art, as well; as in testimony given before the Commission. … Their inward-looking subculture may reinforce hopelessness and self-hate, and their only exits may appear to be the oblivion of drugs and alcohol… or death.

“The reality of life in most isolated northern communities and many reserves is restricted opportunity for participation in the society and the economy beyond their borders, with no real alternatives at home. In urban settings, intergenerational poverty, unresponsive institutions and racism limit the horizons of Aboriginal youth. Many feel that they have no meaningful choices to make, no hope of employment and independence — no future.”

All the challenges have found solutions somewhere in the world. However, many Aboriginal children have always been deprived of opportunity by a schizophrenic attitude toward education and skills training, and outdated perceptions of what their culture actually comprises now.

As required by the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child, every Canadian child deserves an environment in which it is possible to achieve a healthy and fulfilling life according to the standards of the developed world.

Unfortunately, that declaration conflicts with the assumed right of Aboriginals to separate cultural development. That means, in practice, substandard education.

Nonetheless, it is possible to join the modern world as well as to maintain a traditional cultural identity, as the Chinese and Japanese notably do. So do Indian students in schools with an Aboriginal orientation in Toronto and Vancouver.

There has been a disastrous and cumulative deterioration in many Aboriginal families, and to such an extent that remediation has to come from outside. Both the churches and the state failed abysmally to cater to Aboriginal youth.

Elsewhere, however, education has done the heavy lifting successfully even, for example, in the most dysfunctional communities in New York — think of the Harlem Boys Choir as just one example.

The previously failed school in Shelbyville, Indiana, turned around with a major revamping, including use of online educational programs that Bill Gates’s children also use. One prime Canadian success story is Athol Murray College in Wilcox, Saskatchewan. Another now-lapsed success story was the program in Inuvik that trained members of Canada’s cross-country ski team for four consecutive Olympics.

The accomplishments of Aramco and Bechtel in Saudi Arabia provide the best example I know of that brought nomadic tribal people into the modern world. As recounted by Thomas W. Lippman, American companies educated and trained previously illiterate Bedouin in engineering, architecture, construction, business and human resource management, accounting, public relations, and the whole range of trade skills. They also provided hospitals and health care and enabled families, with interest-free loans, to buy the homes they built.

It took about forty years to achieve essentially 100 percent Saudi employment and to transfer total managerial responsibility for running one of the world’s greatest oil companies as well as a major international airline, including its own maintenance shops and training programs.

As just one example, Ali Ibrahim al-Naimi joined Aramco at the age of twelve from a traditional Bedouin family. In due course, he rose to become its chief executive officer and later the Saudi petroleum minister. The company gave him a solid basic education, including English and the rudiments of geology. He went to Beirut for high school and then on to Lehigh University, in the United States, where he received a degree in geology.

That kind of success doesn’t come out of Iqaluit or Attawapiskat. It could be made to happen. But only with a fundamental change in attitudes and execution with respect to prenatal care, child rearing, education, sports and recreation, and skills training.

Colin Alexander was publisher of News of the North in Yellowknife. He was the senior advisor on education for the Ontario Royal Commission on the Northern Environment, and he has been president of the Ottawa-based literacy foundation Sage Youth.

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