Youth leader's death raises alarm over suicide rates

Friends of an inner-city Winnipeg youth, who recently committed suicide, are sounding the alarm over the high suicide rate among First Nations people.
Friends of a Winnipeg youth leader, who recently committed suicide, are sounding the alarm over the high suicide rate among First Nations people. 1:38

Friends of an inner-city Winnipeg youth, who recently committed suicide, are sounding the alarm over the high suicide rate among First Nations people.

Sean Hunte, 18, who was known as a leader for aboriginal and inner-city youth and someone who stood up for social justice issues, died April 25.

Summer Michell, 19, has seen eight of her friends and family commit suicide in the past three years. (Ryan Hicks/CBC)

His death has shaken his friends but also pushed an often unspoken issue into the spotlight: youth suicide in the aboriginal community.

According to the Canadian Institute of Child Health, aboriginal youth commit suicide five to six times more often than non-aboriginal youth.

"I didn’t believe it at first. I was kind of confused," said Summer Michell, one of Hunte’s friends.

"He was always happy and had a smile on his face."

Hunte lived in Winnipeg’s North End and although he wasn't aboriginal by birth, he was adopted into the aboriginal community.

The Manitoba Suicide Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-877-435-7170.

More information is available on the crisis line's website.

At one time considered at-risk, Hunte had become a youth leader and mentor in the North End, working at the Ndinawe Resource Centre as a youth support worker.

He stood up for social justice issues and was seen as a poster-child for leadership, said friends and people with some of the outreach organizations in the inner-city.

At the same time, he often couch surfed, struggling to keep a roof over his head.

"When I had my own problems, he’d talk to me and forget about everything. He took care of other people more than he took care of himself," said Michell, 19.

Funerals feel normal

Unfortunately for Michell, dealing with suicides is not uncommon.

Eight of her friends and family have committed suicide — on- and off-reserve — in the past three years. They were all under 18 and all aboriginal.

Attending funerals of friends who have killed themselves feels normal, said Michell.

"Sometimes I feel kind of used to it," she said.

Youth worker and community activist Michael Champagne said he knows of about 25 young aboriginal people who have either attempted or successfully committed suicide.

"It’s frightening. It’s terrifying that our young people feel that is a better option — that it’s better to end it all today than to live again tomorrow and to deal with intergenerational effects of residential schools, substance abuse in my home, violence on the streets," he said.

"These are the realities that young [aboriginal] people have to live with."

Michele Visser, executive director of the Indian Family Centre, works with aboriginal families touched by youth suicide every day. She hears of at least one young person taking his or her life each week.

"Being a teenager is hard enough. But when you add oppression, racism and lack of stable housing into the mix, you make all the challenges of being a teenager twice or three times as hard," she said.

"Sometimes it’s hard for them to see a future."

The issue of suicide in the community runs deep, she added.

"It’s as old a colonialism. It’s as old as the first Europeans coming here. It’s a systemic issue," said Visser.

"And how do we fix it? I think people don’t know how to fix it."

Community searches for solutions

Hunte’s friends are determined to turn his death into a force for positive change.

Days after his death, they held a four-day, four-night sacred fire behind the Indian Family Centre in honour of him.

They have also discussed ideas for preventing suicide in the aboriginal community. Some of those include a 24-hour helpline "manned by community volunteers [who are] known to the children and not a trained stranger 1,000 miles away," said Champagne.

Access to transitional housing for those leaving the child welfare system is also something they believe is necessary.

Clip of Sean Hunte, used at the start of the CBC TV story, is courtesy of Carole O'Brien/CCPA)