Journey across Canada to raise awareness of Inuit, Indigenous suicide rates

“I just want to do my part”

Hannah Tooktoo is biking across Canada to raise awareness about the suicide epidemic affecting Inuit and other Indigenous communities. (Photo from Tooktoo’s GoFundMe page)

By Kahlan Miron

When Hannah Tooktoo set off on Sunday to bike across Canada to raise awareness about the high suicide rates among Inuit and other Indigenous peoples, she followed a route that had her tackle British Columbia’s mountains first.

“These mountains can be a symbol of how hard we need to work before we can get into those smoother roads in life,” she wrote on Facebook.

Tooktoo, a visual arts student from Kuujjuaq who now lives in Montreal, started her journey on Sunday, June 16, at Mile Zero in Victoria, B.C. She’ll document her travels with videos and posts on her Facebook page.

Tooktoo describes the services in Nunavik as a “a temporary band aid” when it comes to battling suicide in communities. And the suicide epidemic she’s seen at home is a reality in other Inuit communities too.

According to Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami’s 2018 Inuit statistical profile, the rates of suicide in Inuit Nunangat are five to 25 times higher than in the rest of Canada.

Many people get sent down to Montreal for help, Tooktoo said, since there aren’t many hospitals in Nunavik. But removing people from their communities and support groups can do more harm than good. And while therapists will come north, Tooktoo says they rarely stay long enough to build a relationship with communities and make meaningful change.

“We should be trying to figure out ways that will have lasting effects, will really on the long term help our young people, our people struggling with mental health and suicidal thoughts. Because this is too much, you know?”

Tooktoo will also use her cross-country journey to heal herself. After recently losing a number of people from her community to suicide, Tooktoo had trouble coping—especially while juggling the added responsibilities of motherhood and being a full-time student—with her grief.

“I know that I need to take this time to really work on my health, and my mental health and spiritual health,” Tooktoo said.

“Right now, how I’m dealing with stress, and letting my anxieties and my grief take over, take that power from me, is not a healthy way to live. I need to find better coping mechanisms.”

Part of that healing comes from conversation and connection.

Part of her planning involves timing rest days in Indigenous communities across Canada, so she can talk with other Indigenous communities about their methods of coping and the different ways they’re affected. Those connections can also be—and have been—made online.

Even before hitting the road, Tooktoo says that people have shared stories with her online about their loved ones who’ve died from suicide.

While she doesn’t know the solution to the suicide epidemic, Tooktoo hopes that these conversations and the ideas discussed will reach the person who can think of one.

Tooktoo is currently planning her route based on the routes of people who have biked across Canada before. But she hopes that, after announcing her route online, people nearby will give her suggestions or direct her to their communities. Because of that, Tooktoo is keeping her route flexible.

In many ways, Tooktoo is allowing herself to be led by others on this trip: “If any of you … are able to help me with finding community or sharing your experience, just shoot me a message or send me an email.”

“I’m just hoping to hear from you guys. I’m trying to steer this conversation in a way that will be the most helpful, and I’m not perfect, so I need your help.”

Since announcing her project a few weeks beforehand, Tooktoo’s been biking around Montreal to physically prepare. But she’s not as worried about the physical aspect of the trip, viewing the cross-country bike ride as endurance and strength training in of itself.

Instead, Tooktoo says the hardest part of the journey will be facing her “toxic coping mechanisms” and the parts of herself she needs to work on. Being alone and without distraction while biking, Tooktoo knows she’ll have to face those things.

But Tooktoo is approaching her trip “in the most loving and forgiving way,” as she writes on her Facebook page.

“I want to make sure people know that although I plan on doing this trip, if at any point I feel I can’t go forward, it will be OK. I will pick up where I left off next summer. I am still a college student and a mother and in no way am I an athlete.”

The project is funded entirely through donations, although Tooktoo has applied to some organizations for funds as well. But her GoFundMe page has already been a fast success, gaining donations from people across Canada in less than a month.

As of noon on Monday, June 17, she had raised $9,585 of her $25,000 goal.

On June 10, Tooktoo also held a fundraiser potluck, which included the sale of some of her artwork and donated art from friends and family.

“I’m really just going on people’s generosity,” she said. “And it’s amazing.”

Tooktoo also plans to donate money to organizations that are helping fight the high rates of suicide among Inuit and other Indigenous peoples. At the moment she’s unsure which organizations those will be, but she’s keeping an eye out.

“There’s a lot of good people trying to fight for our youth and fight for more services … there’s already these beautiful community attempts that are aimed [at] preventing suicide, and I just want to do my part. Even though I’m not in my community, I want to contribute in some way.”

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(6) Comments:

  1. Posted by Wounded on

    It’s ok to do an awareness run across the country, and raise some funds for a good cause. That’s it, that’s all. For we are yet to gain insight onto suicide. We don’t know that much about suicide except some common denominators. And one common denominator I see in the north is blaming everything but the withins. Very few are searching within our lives. We are looking for the answers out there somewhere. Until we start to look within our misery, we will keep missing all the opportunities to get answers. Our communities are poisoned with alcohol, and drugs and neglect of children. Ok, we heard it all before, yes, we are hearing it all the time, but we are not really listening. We are still putting the blame out there. No ones wants to admit the incredible trouble we are having with the chemicals. More than other societies, we are crippled by the abuse. That translates into hopelessness and despair, and consequences are the tremendous numbers of suicide . It has nothing to do with lack of services. It’s all a matter of motivation and good quality human existence, which are missing from our society in a big way in the north, and indigenous or any society that are having suicide problems in great numbers. Suicide among Inuit is a new phenomenon which coincides with the new chemicals and abuse.

    • Posted by Societal Acceptance on

      My young son had no drug or alcohol issues when he ended his life. He chose to end his life rather than come-out as being gay. The familial support he would have had was not enough compared to the homophobia that is still present in our society.

      • Posted by So sad on

        So sad, that homosexuality is not accepted, and we can only imagine the pain. And a person can feel so overwhelmed. I think, that suicide has many sources. I also think that our majority of suicides in Nunavik are not from homosexuality , even though there are diffidently some. Nunavik has been spiraling into an unhealthy state for about 30 years. If you remember the 1960s and 1970s, there were no suicide, and not much drug, and alcohol. But once the alcohol came, and people got it into their taste, it’s a living hell. The ones committing suicide, the majority that is, comes from the impact of alcohol, drugs and abuse. Not all, off course not. But the numbers are so many because of drugs, alcohol, and abuse. Their are people neglecting their kids, and that kid grows up to find that life is not worth it. That’s the area of suicide that needs most attention. We need to address all suicides , but we need attention to what I would call the extremes.

  2. Posted by iThink on

    Drugs and alcohol are often scapegoated as the cause of depression and mental illness, I would say that there are people who use both and still function and have good, satisfied and even healthy lives. There are also people who use these substances to self medicate and as an escape from their reality. The need to escape should be our real focus, in a way isn’t suicide also a form of escapism? I would say that at the core suicide is related most strongly to a lack of connectedness in people’s lives. Lack of connection to others, not feeling valued or loved, not feeling like an important contributing member of your group. These are more difficult things to deal with and address, but I believe this would be a much more productive starting point than addressing the means people use to escape their pain, as if those were the cause.

    • Posted by What goes around comes around on

      Alcohol and drugs are used to escape. But it’s a viscous cycle. Alcohol and drugs become the new norm. In our society, even thou I agree that it’s disconnected people that suffer most in this, but alcohol and drugs are making it thousands of time worst. Our Nunavik society for most part, don’t enjoy having a few sensible drinks. There’s a, no taste type of drinking going on. Chugging , not drinking. Alcohol in excess, like we witness every day, year after year, in Nunavik, as you can see is killing so many people. You can’t find a population about anywhere on earth that has such negative impact from alcohol. When will people start to admit the reality that alcohol and drugs are destroying Inuit society, as thou it was a war against Inuit. No, it’s not political correctness to admit that. We are afraid to discriminate. I’m telling you, it’s not discrimination, it’s reality.

  3. Posted by Bob Mesher on

    Good for you Hannah! Taking on such a challenge can only enhance your story. Be aware of your limitations and travel safely.

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