Sivummut: Shining a light on the heart of darkness

“That four-letter word called hope”


Canada’s national suicide prevention body took its work into the heart of darkness last week, holding an annual conference in a region where more than 500 people have taken their lives since 1975.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention (CASP) brought nearly 700 delegates to Iqaluit’s Inuksuk High School between May 15 and May 19.

Caregivers, community activists and researchers from Canada, Australia and Iceland joined nearly 200 Inuit participants from Nunavut and Nunavik to share information and ideas in dozens of small workshop sessions.

“We can carry this message to the rest of the world – that no problem is worth dying for,” CASP’s president, Dave Masecar, told delegates as the conference opened.

CASP delegates couldn’t have picked a darker time to come to Iqaluit. Since April 1, 1999, 107 Nunavummiut have died by their own hands, more than during any previous three-year period.

But participants ended their gathering in a mood of renewed optimism, true to the theme that CASP organizers chose for it: “Sivummut,” or “Moving Forward.”

“I think that, in all seriousness, this week is the start of the turning of the tide. I honestly believe that,” Nunavut’s health minister, Ed Picco, said on Sunday.

“One of the best words that could describe this is a four-letter word…. that four-letter word called hope,” Picco said.

Dozens of Iqaluit volunteers, many of them in black shirts emblazoned with bright yellow lettering, were highly visible throughout the conference.

“I feel that the conference has been very positive,” said Alexina Kublu, an Iqaluit volunteer with the Kamatsiaqtut Nunavut Help Line, a telephone counselling service used throughout Nunavut and Nunavik.

Organizations like Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the Qikiqtani Inuit Association and the Government of Nunavut paid to send scores of Inuit to the conference, representing every community in Nunavut.

Many Nunavik organizations also sent delegates, including people from the Makivik Corporation, the Kativik Regional Government, the Nunavut Regional Health and Social Services Board, the Kativik Regional Police Force, the Avataq Cultural Institute, and the Nunavik Youth Association.

For Kane and Elik Tologanak of Cambridge Bay, the conference – which featured many youth-oriented activities – reminded them that Inuit young people are yearning to reconnect with their elders.

“I think there is a big message there from the youth this time around, that they are carrying some very big issues. I think that the rest of the world needs to hear that,” said Elik Tologanak, a school counselor.

Like many participants, Kane and Elik, who have four children and one grandchild, came away from the conference with a reinforced belief in the power of Inuit ways and Inuit values.

“It’s really good to see Inuit youth and Inuit elders in the sessions helping each other,” Kane Tologanak said.

One of the highlights for them was an Inuit healing workshop conducted by Abraham and Meeka Arnakaq of Pangnirtung. “It’s a very Inuit way of grieving that helps the healing process,” Elik said. “It’s an Inuit tradition.”

There are many simple things that ordinary people can do to help children learn that they are loved, he said, such as volunteer work, or opening up their houses to troubled children.

“I would walk around looking for kids in distress,” Kane said.

MLA Jack Anawak, a former CASP board member, echoed a common sentiment in a speech to CASP delegates at a Saturday evening banquet. He said youth must reclaim their Inuit identity to find a reason to live.

“We must promote Inuit pride. We must win them back and demonstrate in our words, in our stories, in our art, our songs and our daily discussion with them – how we are a capable, caring people they should be proud to be part of,” Anawak said.

Like Anawak, Cathy Towtongie, the president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., told participants that Inuit must no longer avoid suicide by refusing to talk about it.

“We have been silent for too many years. Our silence has not stopped suicide,” Towtongie said. “Silence is no longer helping us.”

Researchers and community activists supplied conference participants with a wealth of ideas.

Colin Tatz, a South-African-born political scientist and historian who works at Macquarrie University in Sydney, Australia, provided delegates with an analysis of aboriginal suicide that emphasizes social and economic oppression, rather than medical or psychotherapeutic approaches.

“We have medicalized our white, Anglo-Saxon society to the point where it is ludicrous,” he said.

Tatz, who studied jailhouse suicides among young aboriginal men in Australia, said he found that most were not done by people suffering from clinical depression.

“Most of the factors are social, political, economic…” Tatz said. “They have to be taught to be angry, and have a cause and a reason to exist. They have to have a reason to live.”

On the other hand, volunteers like Adrian Hill, a Jesuit-educated Toronto lawyer who runs a 24-hour help line for troubled lawyers and judges, said anyone can create a “circle of healing,” simply by reaching out to another person at risk.

Hill, a suicide survivor and a recovering alcoholic, said suicide survivors often make the best counsellors. “When you tell me your problem, I can finish your sentences, because I’ve been there,” Hill said.

A small, lively man with limpid blue eyes and an unruly thatch of thinning white hair, Hill delighted participants in his workshop with his pithy one-liners and folksy aphorisms.

“Suicide survivors don’t give a shit about politics. We care about each other,” he said.

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