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Canada: Aboriginal Youth Suicides Hit Crisis Rate

Categories: North America, Canada, Health, Human Rights, Indigenous, Youth

Inuit ChildWhen the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games kick off next month, an Aboriginal [1] symbol will be representing the event. The Games’ logo [2] 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 [3] are five to seven times higher for First Nations [4] youth than for non-Aboriginal youth, and rates among Inuit [5] 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 [6] 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 [7] 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 [8], 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 [9] 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 [10] on behalf of the Canadian government and its citizens for the residential school system.

Anishinawbe Blog by Bob Goulais says [11] 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 [12], funded by Health Canada, was launched [13] in April 2008. It contains resources for youth and youth workers, a blog [14] and personal stories from Aboriginal youth, among other things. In this personal story [15] 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 [16]; 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” [17] to highlight suicide among Aboriginal youth. Revolving around a teen named Kyle, the story is also available as a video [18]. In the blog Stageleft, the blogger discusses [19] 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 [20] 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 [21] 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 [22] by wili_hybrid [23] on Flickr, Creative Commons.