Mental health issues rampant among Saami reindeer herders: CMWS presenter

On day two of the Circumpolar Mental Wellness Symposium, a presenter with the Saami Youth Association told the gathered delegates that one in three Saami reindeer herders between the ages of 18 and 29 have considered suicide.

One in three young Saami herders have considered suicide, says Per Jonas Partapuoli

Inuvialuit Circumpolar Council President Duane Smith opens the Circumpolar Mental Wellness Symposium in Iqaluit Wednesday. The Symposium ends on Friday. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

Being a reindeer herder in Scandinavia may sounds like a romantic life, but a presenter on the second day of the Circumpolar Mental Wellness Symposium told delegates that the Saami people are struggling just to keep the tradition alive. 

Per Jonas Partapuoli, a Saami youth who presented at the symposium. According to Partapuoli, one in three Saami reindeer herders between the ages of 18 and 29 have considered suicide. (Canadian Institute of Health Research)

According to Per Jonas Partapuoli, who is with the Saami Youth Association, traditional reindeer-grazing land has been taken by the state for resource development or sustainable energy projects, such as wind farms, with no consultation with the Saami. 

According to Partapuoli, the changes have had massive effects on their way of life, and one in three reindeer herders between the ages of 18 and 29 have considered suicide. There is little mental health support specific to the Saami, and reindeer herders often eschew seeking help as they feel it weakens their image.

The Saami are an indigenous people who inhabit an Arctic region encompassing parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia — the northernmost indigenous population in Europe.

Partapuoli said in his presentation that losing the traditional land is not just a financial loss, but an emotional one as well, as the Saami's livelihood and culture are tied to reindeer. He stressed the importance of indigenous self-determination to the well being of the Saami people, stating that being able to say no to a project wouldn't mean the Saami would reject all development in the region.

The three-day Circumpolar Mental Wellness Symposium continues in Iqaluit until Friday. Over 100 delegates from Arctic countries and indigenous groups, as well as youth and researchers, are attending the conference to discuss mental wellness issues specific to the North.

Nunavut MP and Arctic Council chair Leona Aglukkaq says she hopes to see tangible results emerge from the symposium, whether that be a clear direction for further research or deliverable goals.

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