Suicide remains a major concern for many Indigenous communities

Staff Writer

A report from Statistics Canada was released in April has concluded that one in five Indigenous people have considered suicide.
However, this data – gathered in 2012 – was only collected from people living off reserve and aged 26 to 59. The study therefore, neglected people living on reserve, youth and the elderly – a large chunk of the population.

Another study, done in 2000 done by the Canadian Institute of Health, states that suicide was five to six times more prevalent in Indigenous youth than non-Indigenous youth. Males had a rate of 126 per 100,000 people opposed to 14. Females had a rate 35 to 100,000 rather than that of five shown in non-Indigenous.

It can be agreed, though, that suicide attempts and thoughts are far higher than those of the general population of Canada.
On April 9 (just days earlier from the release of the report), after the attempted suicide of 11 people, the First Nation of Attawapsikat, a remote Northern Ontario reserve located near Hudson Bay, declared a state of emergency. A population of just 2,000, these attempts happened on the same day, a further 28 attempts happened in March, and 103 the past year.

The Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde told CTV news that it was a “national tragedy,” and, frankly, he’s not wrong.

Attawapiskat isn’t alone in its state of emergency status, nor the suicide epidemic.

Pikangikum, a remote community north of Kenora, Ont., has been under a state of emergency since 2012. Three people committed suicide, the youngest being only 13, while the other two were just 18.

Bearskin Lake, around 400 miles north of Sioux Lookout, declared a state of emergency after the suicide of a 10-year-old girl (among other concerns).

Ontario’s Neskantaga First Nation, north of Thunder Bay, is in its third year of emergency after four suicides and a further 20 attempts.

Manitoba’s Cross Lake, also known as Pimicikamak Cree Nation, saw a staggering 140 suicide attempts in March, all of them happening within two weeks. In addition to the attempts, six people lost their lives.

When news of this came to national attention, there was an outcry. Politicians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pledged help to the reserve. Trudeau promised $70 million in funding for mental health over three years, along with additional case workers.

Not much has changed though. In fact, it has all seemed to disappear from the public eye. Many indigenous leaders are criticizing the government’s response, often reactive rather than proactive.

Often, reserves linger in a state of emergency (currently there is 28 of them) and are never resolved due to the lack of government interest. Some just “disappear” due to restrictions on how long a state of emergency can last. In Manitoba, a state of emergency lasts 30 days, while in British Columbia its only seven days unless renewed.

Various reasons may be stated as to why the Indigenous population has been struggling with suicide and other aspects of mental illness, such as depression and drug abuse.

One of the causes can be attributed to the historical context of colonization. Forced assimilation was once commonplace, leading to a loss of traditional lifestyle and leaving some lacking or feeling like they have lost a piece of their identity.

Forced relocation (such as Port Harrison in modern-day Nunavut, 1957), residential schools and forced foster care and adoptions are also a cause. Residential schools were the norm in early Canada, particularly in the 1930s in an effort to assimilate and eradicate Native culture. The legacy of these schools was that of physical and sexual abuse and the deaths of 6,000 students, all forced from their homes, some of them never seeing or ever knowing what happened to the rest of their family. The last school closed in 1996 — only twenty years ago.

The devastating effects from residential schools has left a lasting impression on the survivors. Many, if not all were taught that being an “Indian” was “to be dirty” and were told they should be ashamed of who they were and their nation’s past.
All of these factors left the survivors open to mental-health issues, including depression and suicidal tendencies and/or drug abuse.

These traumas have created what is known as intergenerational trauma, meaning the trauma endured by residential school survivors has been passed on to future generations, where similar behaviour manifests itself.

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