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Canada: Aboriginal Youth Suicides Hit Crisis Rate

Inuit ChildWhen the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games kick off next month, an Aboriginal symbol will be representing the event. The Games’ logo is a contemporary inukshuk, a stone sculpture used by Canada's Inuit people as directional landmarks, which organizers say symbolizes friendship and hope. But hope is one thing many Aboriginal youth in Canada appear to lack, as suicide continues to occur at alarming rates, leading to crisis-like situations in some communities.

Suicide rates have declined in Canada through the years but not in Aboriginal communities, though there is great variation among communities. Suicide rates are five to seven times higher for First Nations youth than for non-Aboriginal youth, and rates among Inuit youth are among the highest in the world, at 11 times the national average. Some spectulate that the problem is actually worse, as stats don't usually include all Aboriginal groups.

Many factors may be contributing to these high rates, including isolation, poverty and lack of adequate housing, health care, social services and other basic amenities. The blog Sweetgrass Coaching, written by Richard Bull, also blames the pain and helplessness that resulted from colonization:

“You can’t understand Aboriginal suicide without looking at colonization. We, as Indigenous people, must realize that we did not have sky-high suicide rates before the European invasion (contact is too clean a word for what actually happened).

When Canadian society says we’re sick that’s like a psychopathic killer complaining to someone he’s tried to strangle repeatedly that she should do something about the marks on her neck and see a psychiatrist about her recurrent nightmares and low self-esteem.”

Specifically, some bloggers point to Canada's residential schools, a federally-funded system run by churches that removed Aboriginal children from their families and communities to help them assimilate into Euro-Canadian cultures. From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 Aboriginal children were required to attend these Christian schools. It was later revealed that many of these children endured physical, emotional and sexual abuse. In June 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of the Canadian government and its citizens for the residential school system.

Anishinawbe Blog by Bob Goulais says the multi-generational effects of residential schools must not be underestimated.

“Many residential school survivors and their families have no identity beyond their church and what they learned in school. With no identity and without acceptance, they are banished to the margins of society. Although this generation might be more accepting – with access to more social programs and numerous political, legal and rights-based victories – the damage from the past generations has been done. Parents don’t know how to be parents. Families don’t know how to Love…

…For far too many youth, suicide is the ultimate way out. We’re seeing that more in more in remote, northern communities. This is truly the saddest commentary. I can’t imagine how bad life must be for a twelve year-old Cree boy to hang himself at the recreation centre swing-set. To not have the Love he needs… to not have hope. To know that he hasn’t been the first and he won’t be the last.”

To help combat suicide among Aboriginal youth, the Web site Honouring Life Network, funded by Health Canada, was launched in April 2008. It contains resources for youth and youth workers, a blog and personal stories from Aboriginal youth, among other things. In this personal story a young man talks about how his older brother's death led him to contemplate taking his own life.

“On the second anniversary of his death, I just couldn’t feel like missing him anymore. I got up really early in the morning and was walking to the picnic shelter by the lake. This other guy had hung himself there not long before. I felt like I wanted the lake to be the last thing I saw.

My neighbour was out though and started talking to me and I guess he could tell something was wrong. He kept talking to me and talking to me and then he woke up my parents. I never actually told them what I was going to do but they knew somehow. It was a big shock to all of us and it woke us up.

We started to get into the traditional healing; like my dad and I will do a sweat lodge with the other men. I’m not going to talk about that because it’s private. And my mom does the whole thing with burning sage and sweetgrass, which kind of stinks up the house but that’s okay I guess because she’s more like my mom again.”

Last fall, the Honouring Life Network announced a video contest, where Aboriginal youth were encouraged to submit a short video related to suicide prevention and awareness. The entries can be viewed on their YouTube channel; the winning entry is entitled “Choose life”:

Other youth are also working to help fight this growing problem. In 2006, Steve Sanderson, an Aboriginal youth cartoonist, wrote and illustrated a comic book called “Darkness Calls” to highlight suicide among Aboriginal youth. Revolving around a teen named Kyle, the story is also available as a video. In the blog Stageleft, the blogger discusses 12 other Aboriginal youth who are making a difference, and were rewarded for doing so, including his daughter Charlotte:

“I feel very safe in saying that not one of the 12 people on the stage lived the lives they have lived, or did the things that they have done, so they could get an award…Charlotte has been concerned with Aboriginal youth suicide rates, the rate of suicide in the Aboriginal community is many times higher than the national rate, and the rate of suicide within the Inuit community is the highest in Canada. To help bring attention to this she, and 4 other Aboriginal youth, walked from Duncan BC to Ottawa speaking at community centres, youth detention facilities, friendship centres, municipal councils, and to every politician that would listen to them.”

A 2009 UNICEF Canada report on Aboriginal children's health states that suicide intervention and prevention can only be successful by taking into account the interconnected relationships between culture, community and environment. Whatever the approach, the blog Rebel Youth says Aboriginal youth, like all Canadian youth, deserve a future.

“Over 50% of Aboriginal people are under 23. Canadian youth justified by being deep enraged by treatment of Aboriginal peoples by the Canadian ruling class; the attack on Aboriginal youth is an attack on all youth.

Aboriginal youth need a future. A future free from racism, a future with a good paying job, a future with land or proper compensation for land use. A future with rights to universal education right up to and including post-secondary education. A future with good housing. A future without racist police brutality and racial profiling. A future with a dream. A future that is a reality.”


Photo of Inuit Child by wili_hybrid on Flickr, Creative Commons.

  • Suicide is not about dying, but about stopping the overwhelming pain that is associated with colonization.

    In Canada, we are currently into the fifth devastating wave of colonization. First, it was disease; secondly, relocation and the establishment of the reservation system; thirdly, the theft of rights and criminalization of culture; then, the residential school experience; and now, social services.

    Understanding that colonization is still happening and is not just part of our past is key to healing our communities from within.

    Thank you for your article.

  • This is a very interesting article, I relate it to indigenous cultures here in Mexico. The way they had to leave their own faith and beliefs to “enter a society”. It is sad that in the end they are not still a part of it.

    Thank you for your article!

  • Jeremy Clarke

    The suicide statistic is something we learn in school and have to deal with, but its always to accept facts that are so disturbing.

    A well written and thoughtful description of some of the problems native Canadians face. Thanks Juhie.

  • MsANGEL GAMBLE

    THIS problem is long standing.. YOUTH are not regarded as anything special in Native communities or given appropriate empowering programming for self identity, self esteem, teen empowerment, community viability or intergenerational connections.. should these items be met and regarded these YOUTH will not be lost. COME FROM MY OWN YOUTH had I not … See More been involved with NATIONAL NATIVE WOMENS ASSOCIATION.. I would not have wat I do today or the self respect I have for meself today and MY own PATH.. come together .. stop talking about the problem and waitin for UR GRANT MONEY for Programming and take the matters into ur OWN community HANDS. Handouts havent functionally worked yet so why r we still takin them.

  • because that’s what your Gov’t does to all native peoples–they don’t care & all that they care about is there own self satisfaction / wealth. They do the same here in USA. They are poisening the natives here with water that runs off of a uranium mines here & the people here are getting sick with different disease’s. Are so called Gov’t doesn’t do anything about it. But when a native american indian joins up in the military here they send him into battle to kill all those who oppose are ways. How does that sound to you?

  • Shelly Gillis

    I am currently taking a Native Studies course at University and I am ashamed to say that I did not know the extent of the injustices inflicted upon the Aboriginal people of North America. I have learned in school how the Indigenous peoples of Canada lost their land when the European settlers came to Canada, however, the extent to which the Indigenous peoples were expected to assimilate to the Europeans’ way of life was never clearly explained. I have heard from many of my fellow Canadians that they think the Canadian government has already paid for the mistakes of the past and that we are enabling them by supporting them financially. I have also heard many times the comment that if we keep paying for them they will have no motivation to get a job, and that we are paying for their drugs and alcohol. I can now recognize the ignorance of these statements and help them understand the injustices the Aboriginal peoples of North America have experienced.
    After European colonization of Canada the Aboriginal peoples had to endure being treated as second-class citizens, racism, losing their land, being taken from their families and forced to attend residential schools, losing their culture and losing their languages. Some Aboriginal people live in third world conditions right here in Canada. These injustices have lead to a downward spiral in the health and well-being of many Aboriginal people which lead to a sense of hopelessness and helplessness which in turn leads to depression, alcoholism and even suicide. The fact that the suicide rate in Aboriginal communities is five to seven times the Canadian national average is alarming and something must be done to combat this problem.
    Thank you for this article and trying to bring to light the high suicide rate amongst Aboriginal youths and the injustices they have endured.

  • Very sad video.But l do believe there is hope where there was none.You can find it in Chief Dan George’s words.
    The beauty of the trees,
    the softness of the air,
    the fragrance of the grass,
    speaks to me.

    The summit of the mountain,
    the thunder of the sky,
    the rhythm of the sea,
    speaks to me.

    Black Elk had a Vision
    The strength of the fire,
    the taste of salmon,
    the trail of the sun,
    and the life that never goes away,
    they speak to me.
    And my heart soars.”

    Black elk had this vision
    I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.

    A native American grandfather was talking to his grandson about how he felt. He said ‘I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One wolf is the vengeful, angry, violent one. The other wolf is the loving, compassionate one.’ The grandson asked him, ‘Which wolf will win the fight in your heart?’ The grandfather answered: ‘The one I feed.’

    From Native American Story

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