Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, North America

HEALTH: Native Suicide Surge Rooted in Colonial Traumas

Am Johal

VANCOUVER, Jan 7 2008 (IPS) - When the spotlight hits Canada for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the event will be promoted with a traditional Inuit “inukshuk” – the official logo for the 2010 Olympic Games.

Deeply embedded in Inuit culture, an inukshuk is a stone structure that serves as a directional landmark on the frozen Arctic tundra and symbolises safety, hope and friendship.

But most Canadians and the international community are unaware that suicide rates for Inuit are 11 times higher than the Canadian average. In some parts of the Eastern Arctic, the suicide rate is even higher. Despite these alarming numbers, no public health emergency or advisory has been declared by territorial or federal government health departments.

Critics argue that the Nunavut government and most other people capable of dealing with this problem continue to view suicide as a result of “cultural change” while ignoring depression, alcoholism and historical trauma in Nunavut’s communities. However, most agree that many of these issues are inherently connected.

Many Inuit were forcibly relocated from 1939-1963 to colonial settlements by the federal government for the purposes of assimilation as part of land use policies. The legacy of these failed polices continue to be a contributing factor in current social issues which exist in the region, according to researchers.

Jack Hicks, a longtime Arctic resident, is researching a Ph.D. dissertation on the social determinants of elevated rates of suicide among Inuit youth. “Our suicide rate varies widely by age, sex and region,” he told IPS. “There are very few suicides by Inuit elders, for example, but for Inuit men in Nunavut between the ages of 15 and 24, the suicide rate is over 60 times that of their peers in southern Canada.”

Hicks noted that Nunavut’s rates aren’t even the highest. “For the period 1999 to 2003, the suicide rate among Labrador Inuit was twice that of Inuit in Nunavut and the rate among Inuit in Nunavik was 50 percent higher than in Nunavut, while the rate among the Inuvialuit of the Western Arctic was substantially lower,” he said.

He said that suicide rates across the Inuit world were very low as recently as the 1950s and 1960s, with colonial records indicating that there was just one suicide in the area now known as Nunavut during the entire 1960s. He explained that what has been described as a “suicide transition” occurred first in Alaska, then in Greenland, and later in the Canadian Arctic.

“This was the same sequence in which the different national governments had implemented policies such as moving people into settlements – policies which had huge impacts on Inuit life ways,” Hicks said.

Prior to the intervention of government authorities, “Inuit society was all about survival under incredibly harsh conditions,” he said. “Coping skills were taught to kids in all manner of ways. Doctors and social workers today talk about the extreme impulsivity they see in many young people, overreactions to life stressors – like a relationship break-up – that a more resilient person would be able to handle.”

Hicks believes that many of Canada’s aboriginal societies today are “in something of a state of shock”.

“What will future generations think of how the federal and territorial governments addressed a terrible need for services and resources in the1990s, this decade and the next?” he asked. “I think their judgments will be ‘indifference’ and ‘neglect’. ‘You couldn’t have prevented all those suicides, but you could have prevented many of them. You could have done much more. And you didn’t.'”

Hicks is part of a team that is conducting a suicide follow-back study. The detailed five-year follow-back study in the Eastern Arctic will examine past suicides in the region and specific details related to them. The study began in 2005. It is being conducted by researchers from Nunavut in conjunction with Montreal’s McGill Group for Suicide Studies, one of Canada’s leading suicide research bodies.

“Research specific to the most at-risk groups has played a key role in strengthening suicide prevention in other parts of the world,” Hicks said. “We very much hope that this will be the case in Nunavut as well. Whether governments will be willing to act on the recommendations remains to be seen.”

Though broader Canadian suicide rates have decreased over the last 20 years, aboriginal suicide rates have continued to increase over the same period.

Laurence Kirmayer, director of the Division of Social and Transcultural Psychiatry at McGill University, recently wrote a report on native suicides for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

“What’s happening in the Eastern Arctic, small-scale indigenous societies have been enveloped and transformed by colonising powers,” Kirmayer told IPS. “It is not a unique phenomenon. The suicide problem is a barometre of other social problems in the community.”

Kirmayer added that there have been similar factors with indigenous populations in Alaska and Greenland. “They are historically linked to social change of outside forces making change. Meaning, sense of individual and collective worth is undermined. It is perhaps not surprising; what we were struck by is that we found a much different situation between men and women.”

“There is much more continuity in social roles for women traditionally in taking care of children. Those are still functions that Inuit women perform. For men, food and material resources, which is an activity that is not as central for people, as accessing them has become more complicated as it is now connected to a cash economy. That change, when it happens rapidly, when people don’t have a say over it, it is a risky proposition. People feel like refugees in their own land.”

Kirmayer also stressed that many Inuit communities have suicide rates that are no different than the national averages and that interventions and social cohesion can occur and the issue should not be sensationalised.

Dr. Frank Tester, a UBC social work professor and author of “Taamarniit (Mistakes): Inuit Relocation in the Eastern Arctic, 1939-1963” told IPS, “Understanding the causes of suicide in the Eastern Arctic isn’t rocket science… This issue, quite frankly, has been studied to death. Culture is sacred and it gives meaning to life. It contributes to physical, mental and spiritual well-being. When you alter that, it affects people, especially young people who are dislocated from previous generations of their family and cultural life.”

IPS was unable to make contact with the Nunavut government’s health services ministry.

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