A made-in-Nunavut failure
In 2001, the Government of Nunavut launched a well-intentioned public information campaign aimed at persuading young people to stop killing themselves, based on the slogan, “Suicide is not the Inuit way.”
In that year, 27 people, most of them young and male, died by their own hands. The public information campaign was “sensitive” and “appropriate” in every sense in which those shallow, worn-out descriptors tend to be used: elders were “consulted” and used for display purposes. The material itself was presented within an idealized construction of Inuit culture.
The project was an abject failure. Two years later, in 2003, the suicide death number rose to 37. Last year was the second-worst ever: 29 Nunavummiut died by their own hands.
There is no reason to believe that 2007 will be any better. In Iqaluit last week, two young mothers hanged themselves.
Pretty posters and amateur TV commercials aren’t enough. A suicide prevention strategy must seek to understand the real risk factors that are associated with suicide and then attempt to reduce them.
The Government of Nunavut does not yet have such a suicide prevention strategy. This amounts to a government-wide failure of the worst kind, a failure rooted in ignorance and negligence, most of it within the GN’s two most important departments, health and education, but also among the people of Nunavut themselves. Nunavut’s elected government has been able to get away with this, after all, because the people of Nunavut are allowing them to.
But this is no reason to give up. On matters of life and death one should never give up.
Here then, is list of the GN’s made-in-Nunavut failures on suicide, and our suggestions for how to fix them:
The school system
It’s well-known that illiteracy and poor education are major risk factors for suicide.
But by ensuring that many hundreds of Nunavummiut do not learn how to read and write, the GN’s education system is complicit in the territory’s appalling suicide rate. An effective suicide prevention strategy must, therefore, include a commitment to reform the school system.
If we had to write a mission statement for Nunavut Department of Education right now that was based on its actual performance, it would go like this: “We’ll pretend to teach and you’ll pretend to learn.”
School officials must stop lying to students and their parents. If a student gets credit for passing Grade 10, then he or she should be able to read, write and do arithmetic at a Grade 10 level – not a Grade 3 level.
Because the Nunavut government doesn’t have the guts to participate in national standardized testing, anecdotal evidence, gossip, and rumours are all we have to guide us.
It’s time for the people of Nunavut, and their government, to grow up and move beyond sterile arguments over trivial issues such as how much power to give district education authorities. Instead the people of Nunavut must focus on building a school system that teaches the young how to think, solve problems and live in the world with pride and dignity.
Alcohol and drug abuse
Another well-known risk factor for suicide is substance abuse – many suicides are completed by people who are intoxicated or high.
Recently substance abuse in Nunavut has taken a frightening turn for the worse. Until a few years ago, substance abuse in Nunavut meant binge drinking, cannabis smoking and for a few people, cocaine use. Now it means the reckless use of party drugs like ecstasy, and what’s worse, dangerous, highly addictive substances like crack and crystal methamphetamine.
But one of the great failures of territorial government in northern Canada has been the failure to contend with alcoholism, illegal drug abuse and the abuse of solvents by children.
The latest statistics on substance abuse are more than 10 years old, from a territorial health survey done in 1996. Since then, no one has cared enough about the issue to even study and measure it – such is the nature of institutional ignorance in Nunavut.
So an effective suicide prevention plan must include a strategy to measure and reduce substance abuse – and to treat people for the deeper emotional issues that lie behind their addictions.
Depression and other common, but treatable mood disorders are well-known risk factors for suicide.
But in Nunavut, depression is now only starting to receive the acknowledgment that it deserves. That’s not good enough. Depression is a complicated syndrome, but we know it often roots itself in families where there is a history of pain and trauma.
In Nunavut, that is the story of many, many families: trauma that’s rooted in the transitions that occurred between the late 1940s and early 1960s throughout the Arctic, when Inuit were compelled to move from camps into permanent communities.
An effective suicide prevention strategy must, therefore, include research on the true extent of depression in Nunavut, a plan to educate people about it, and an intensive effort to build on the healing work that some community groups have already begun
Deaths by suicide among women account for about 17 per cent of the total in Nunavut. Among these, sexual abuse is believed to be a major, if not universal risk factor. It’s also believed to be one of several risk factors in male suicides, which account for 83 per cent of the total.
Nunavut’s high sexual assault rate, which is about 10 to 12 times the Canada-wide average, suggests sexual abuse is now deeply rooted in Nunavut communities and will continue to occur for years to come. The effect? Emotional trauma, mental illness, and substance abuse replicate themselves from generation to generation to generation.
A effective suicide prevention strategy, must therefore include an acknowledgment of the true extent of sexual abuse, a plan to help children protect themselves. And for those who perpetrate it, those who want to change should get the help they need, while those who refuse to change should be shunned and incarcerated. JB