Report on Innu suicides hopes to shed light on causes

An upcoming coroner's report into the suicides of five members of the Innu community of Uashat-Maliotenam on Quebec's North Shore could have implications for other Indigenous communities dealing with similar crises.

Quebec coroner's report and recommendations, due out Saturday, could help communities across Canada

A coroner's report investigated five suicides in the Innu community of Uashat mak Mali-Utenam. (Radio-Canada)

An upcoming coroner's report into the suicides of five members of the Innu community of Uashat-Maliotenam on Quebec's North Shore could have implications for other Indigenous communities dealing with similar crises. 

Quebec coroner Bernard Lefrançois will release his report Saturday into the deaths of four women and one man over a nine-month period in 2015. Family members of those who took their own lives will hear his conclusions about the causes and circumstances of the deaths, and his recommendations to prevent others.

When the inquest ended last June, Lefrançois said he was eager to complete his report.

"The faster it comes out, the faster we can act, the faster we can save lives," he said at the time.

What we realized was that suicide is just the peak of an iceberg.- Jean-Claude Therrien Pinette, Uashat-Maliotenam First Nation spokesman

Jean-Claude Therrien Pinette, a spokesman for the Uashat-Maliotenam First Nation, said the inquest shed light on deep-rooted problems.

"What we realized was that suicide is just the peak of an iceberg," he said. "Under the water, there was a big bag of pain and trauma and different, very bad experiences and all the colonization process that was going on here on the North Shore of Quebec since the arrival of the non-Native. This big bag that we carry right now, we see that some people are very affected by this."

Therrien Pinette hopes the report leads to changes and investments in services and prevention programs by the provincial government.

'Not so different' from other communities 

The Quebec government called the inquest last year after a string of suicides that occurred in short succession prompted calls for action from the community of about 4,000 near Sept-Îles, Que.

The two-week inquest heard from around 30 witnesses including family members, police officers and psychologists.

Quebec Coroner Bernard Lefrançois, in the doorway, leaves after a two-week public inquiry in July 2016. (Diana Gonzalez/Radio-Canada)

Some described a shortage of services and a lack of resources to deal with issues of mental health and addiction. 

Therrien Pinette hopes the coroner's recommendations address these pressing needs in his community, and in Indigenous communities across Canada.  

"We're not so different than other communities in Canada," he said. "What's going on here is the same thing that's going on in Attawapiskat and in Labrador, or Alberta or British Colombia. I think that what will be proposed in Uashat-Maliotenam will be good for other communities, for sure." 

Generations of trauma

Some of those who testified at the inquest spoke of multiple suicides across generations of the same family. 

"To arrive and talk about a tragic situation like this was very difficult," said Jean-François Bertrand, the lawyer representing four of the five families involved. He says the root of the problems in the community are wide-ranging.

"We talk about intergenerational trauma, we talk about violence, we talk about drugs, we talk about alcohol, we talk about isolation, we talk about cultural problems," Bertrand said. "There's many causes, but what we ask the coroner is to come up with a solution to this."

Bertrand submitted 44 of his own recommendations to the coroner, including investments in education, permanent programs for youth, a dedicated help-line with service in Innu and the hiring of more social workers and psychologists who will stay in the community long-term rather than just during times of crisis. If implemented, he believes these types of changes could make a difference beyond Quebec's North Shore. 

"For Aboriginal communities, it's not the only community that has the same problems," he said. "So I hope the report will help these communities too."

This comes as the grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation in Ontario is calling for a national suicide strategy following the suicides of two 12-year-old girls in Wapekeka First Nation this week.

CBC News