In the House of Commons' emergency debate on the Attawapiskat suicide crisis Tuesday, one MP spoke from personal experience.

"Suicide is a word that we all know sadly only too well," said Fisheries and Oceans Minister and Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo. "My heart bleeds for the residents of Attawapiskat First Nation."

Tootoo devoted much of his speech to drawing parallels between Attawapiskat and Nunavut.

"Nowhere is the pain of self-inflicted death more prevalent and more poignant than in our indigenous communities."

Getting personal

The minister also shared his personal experiences with the suicide of family members and friends.  

"Imagine telling your five-year-old cousin's son that his father is not coming back again — I had to do that. I had to cry with my aunt over the loss of her son, my cousin," said Tootoo.

"I've had to talk to my daughter, my teenage daughter, who lost one of her best friends to suicide."

Nunavut's suicide crisis

Nunavut has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, Tootoo said. 

"Rarely a week goes by that there isn't a suicide in our territory," he said. "I've seen many parents who've lost their children to suicide."

Approximately 500 people have died by suicide in Nunavut since it was created in 1999. The suicide rate for Inuit in Nunavut is about 10 times the national average.

"It happens far too often among Inuit boys between the ages of 15 and 19 years of age," said Tootoo.

He added that Inuit teenaged boys have a suicide rate that is 40 times higher than those of their peers in the rest of Canada.

"This rampant crisis has an impact on all aspects of life in Nunavut, on the wellbeing of the family, of students in schools who have lost a classmate, a friend, on the spirit of a community, and on society as a whole," said Tootoo.

These staggering numbers, he said, do not even include those who have attempted to take their own lives.

What is being done

Minister Tootoo also spoke about the ways people in Nunavut are coming together on suicide prevention.

"Many Nunavummiut work hard to prevent suicide despite the trauma, grief and loss that overwhelm them," said Tootoo.

The minister's speech also included recognition of the role of Inuit organizations such as Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami in working on these issues.

He also promoted Nunavut's newly formulated one-year suicide prevention strategy action plan, which followed the recent coroner's inquiry into suicides in the territory.

"This is a first step," said Tootoo. "A first step towards the development of a longer term plan and I will do what I can to support this initiative."

A joint responsibility

While Tootoo acknowledged that the provisions of health services rests with the territorial government, he did stress the need for joint work in resolving this crisis.

"This is a complex issue that requires a broad response. It is not and cannot be the sole responsibility of one level of government or one organization," said Tootoo.

Although the federal government did not budget any money for suicide prevention in Nunavut this year, Tootoo did itemize the funds made available for mental health services.

Health Canada is investing $96.5 million over five years in the territory to support mental health services, which includes money specifically for suicide prevention.

He added that the federal government is also providing $33.4 million over three years to the territorial health investment fund that is aimed at improving health services. That's a chance, he said, to address some of the underlying causes. 

"That means better access to housing, healthcare and other social services as well as education, training and employment opportunities," he said. 

"In other words: a future."