ITK says Inuit resiliency will win out over suicide
“It doesn’t have to be this way”
OTTAWA — Terry Audla was just getting into his speech on how the wheels are finally turning on suicide prevention in Canada on the steps of Parliament Hill Tuesday when the Peace Tower bells began to toll their noon-time address.
Speaking above the deafening chimes of “O Canada” — a fitting back-drop — Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said he was hopeful the federal government, along with provincial and territorial governments, would work together to give young Inuit, and other Canadians, something to live for.
“Today we celebrate life,” Audla said. “We celebrate our culture, and we celebrate the fact that we are taking on this enormous challenge together. This is the reason we are here today.”
This was ITK’s seventh annual event to commemorate World Suicide Prevention Day, but the first time they’ve partnered with the Mental Health Commission of Canada and the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, both of whom sent representatives to speak.
Such partnerships are necessary, he said, if we are ever to address the alarming rate of suicide in Canada among aboriginal people. Suicide among Inuit is 11 times the national average, he said, and most Inuit who commit suicide are under age 30.
They feel they have no hope, he said, and no future. It’s up to family members and friends to reach out when they see that their loved ones are troubled. We must dispel the taboos around suicide and talk about it, he said.
“In times of despair,” he said, “take a deep breath and know, there will always be a tomorrow.”
Despite forecasts for stormy weather, the rain held off and about 100 people gathered to hear words of encouragement from their leaders and watch performances by local artists including students in the Nunavut Sivuniksavut college program who just started classes this week.
Master of Ceremonies Thomas Anguti Johnston, dressed in Johnny Cash black with a sealskin tie, was more sombre than usual given the day’s subject matter.
The event began on a powerful note with Baker Lake’s Shauna Seeteenak, an NS student, who performed a rap song she wrote called “Qiviktailigit” (Don’t Give up).
She then joined the rest of her classmates on the steps of Parliament to sing the unofficial NS theme song: “Inuit Sivuniksangat.”
Nearly all the official speakers who followed mentioned their inspiring performance and thanked them for their leadership.
Those speakers included Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Shawn Atleo and Harold Albrecht, the Conservative MP whose private member’s bill to create a Federal Framework for Suicide Prevention became law in December 2012.
Atleo and Audla, looking like bookends with short dark hair and goatees, both talked about how suicide is not a part of their history or culture and why that makes it difficult for elders and aboriginal leaders to grapple with the growing problem.
The two men acknowledged the roles racism, colonialism, poverty, trauma and substance abuse play in the high rates of suicide, but they also talked about the resiliency aboriginal people have shown over the centuries to overcome the challenges they have faced since first contact with Europeans.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Audla said. “While the explanations for suicide are many and very difficult and complex, what we know for sure is that community engagement, strong communities and strong social programs help create strong individuals.”
But while the governments of Nunavut and Canada have both put forth strategies to prevent suicide, and ITK plans to join them with its own Inuit-specific strategy, the numbers in Nunavut remain discouraging.
An 11-year-old boy committed suicide in Repulse Bay in August and three people, including two youth, died by their own hand in Pangnirtung in May. Nunavut has recorded 29 suicides so far this year, already surpassing the 2012 total of 27.
In Nunavut, the Kamatsiaqtut help line, staffed by volunteers, nightly receives calls from people in Nunavut who are in crisis and need to talk to someone. That line can be reached in Iqaluit at (867) 979-3333 or toll-free at 1-(800) 265-3333 from 7 p.m. to midnight.