Alberta releases report into suicide deaths of 7 Indigenous youth

'Their deaths by suicides are heartbreaking and focuses attention on what can only be described as a terrible tragedy that is occurring among Aboriginal young people,' the report states.

Province's Child and Youth Advocate says action to address suicide crisis 'long overdue'

A report by Alberta's child and youth advocate into the suicide deaths of seven youths within an 18-month period found a common 'pattern of complex trauma due to exposure to parental addictions and family violence.' (iStock)

Victoria grew up in a home where she was abused and neglected, just as her mother had been.

While still a child, Victoria was assaulted by the aunt who adopted her after her suicidal mother died of a drug overdose and her addict father became homeless.

The shy, music-loving girl was shuffled for years between the homes of relatives and foster care, always yearning for a permanent family.

At 15, after a drug overdose and with her life in emotional chaos, she committed suicide.

Victoria is one of seven Indigenous youths — aged 14 to 18 — whose suicides, over an 18-month period in 2013 and 2014, were studied in an attempt to identify the root cause of their deaths and the larger crisis of Indigenous youth suicide.

The short, troubled lives and deaths of Victoria, Asinay, Cedar, Sage, Morley, Kari and Jacob (all pseudonyms) are detailed in a 100-page report released Monday by Del Graff, Alberta's Child and Youth Advocate.

"Their deaths by suicides are heartbreaking and focuses attention on what can only be described as a terrible tragedy that is occurring among Aboriginal young people," the report states.

Earlier this month, the crisis of Indigenous suicide made national headlines after the remote northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency during a spate of dozens of suicide attempts. In the week following that declaration, at least 17 children and youth in the community attempted suicide.

'Complex trauma' was common factor

The Alberta report — Toward a Better Tomorrow: Addressing the Challenge of Aboriginal Youth Suicide — found common factors among the suicides of Indigenous young people.

"Each young person's life was marked by a pattern of complex trauma due to exposure to parental addictions and family violence," Graff wrote.

"Some of these children were exposed to suicidal behaviours. Most were identified as having emotional disturbances. Most experienced numerous placement moves."

All of the youths in the study were either receiving child intervention services at the time of their death or had in the two years preceding it.

All of the youths included in Del Graff's report were known to child intervention services. (CBC)

Graff's mandate allows him to investigate cases of children who die or who are seriously injured up to two years after they receive child intervention services. He said his office reviewed the seven youth suicides individually before he decided to examine them together as part of a broader review.

The report said suicides are a leading cause of death among Indigenous youths. More than a third of all deaths among Indigenous young people are attributed to suicide — and they are five to six times more likely to be affected by suicide than the general population.

Province should fund suicide prevention strategy

Graff referenced a public inquiry into an Indigenous youth's suicide 30 years ago. It produced 22 recommendations.

Action on this issue is long overdue.- Del Graff, Alberta Child and Youth Advocate

"While there have been significant changes in the various systems that provide services to Aboriginal children and families, outcomes for some of Alberta's most vulnerable young people have seen little change," Graff wrote.

"Action on this issue is long overdue."

Graff makes 12 recommendations, including:

  • The Alberta government should fund a suicide prevention strategy that allows Indigenous communities to lead and develop their own initiatives to curb youth suicide.
  • The Ministry of Human Services should ensure proactive supports are available to Indigenous young people who have lost someone significant to suicide.
  • Human Services should ensure caseworkers focus on the parental and family attachment needs of children while ensuring that their risk for harm is addressed.
  • Alberta Mental Health Services should incorporate cultural components into its treatment strategies for young people.

The ministers for the four ministries responsible for acting on Graff's report all acknowledged the tragedy of Indigenous youth suicide but offered no concrete plans or schedule for addressing the issue.

Human Services Minister Irfan Sabir promised his ministry would work with Graff, the federal government and Indigenous partners to implement the recommendations. Education Minister David Eggen said his ministry will collaboratively develop and implement school-based suicide prevention programs, while Associate Minister of Health Brandy Payne and Indigenous Relations Minister Richard Feehan promised to find ways to address the complex problem.

Connection to families, histories and cultures key

As in past reports by academics and others, Graff's report found Indigenous suicides are often the product of inter-generational trauma caused by residential schools and the so-called Sixties Scoop, in which thousands of Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families.

"As they grew up, former students became parents, but the disruption caused by residential schools and the 'Sixties Scoop' left many ill equipped to take on parenting roles," the report states. "Many continued to have unresolved grief, loss and anger, which contributed to situations of substance abuse, family dysfunction and impaired child-parent relations."

Connecting Aboriginal youth with their traditions and cultures is essential.- Del Graff

The report — again, like previous reports — also pointed to poverty and joblessness as a major socioeconomic factor that contributes to suicide. But Graff stressed the seven youths did not all live on Indigenous reserves or settlements; some lived in cities.

The report said suicide prevention strategies must focus on building youths' positive relationships with their families, communities, histories and cultures.

Earlier this month, the northern Ontario First Nations reserve Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency after a spate of suicide attempts. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

"Connecting Aboriginal youth with their traditions and cultures is essential because it enhances their sense of meaning and belonging," Graff wrote.

These "protective factors" will help insulate them against any risk factors for suicide they may encounter.

While the stories of Victoria, Asinay, Cedar, Sage, Morley, Kari and Jacob are unique, Graff said all experienced degrees of pain — emotional, psychological and in some cases physical — they could no longer bear.

"Ultimately, the assistance that was offered and provided by caregivers, professionals and others was not sufficient to help them work through their trauma. In the end, all seven turned to suicide as a way of ending their pain."


Jennie Russell

Former investigative reporter

Jennie Russell was a reporter with CBC Investigates, the investigative unit of CBC Edmonton, from 2012 until 2021. Russell specialized in accountability journalism. Her work has been widely credited with forcing transparency and democratic change in Alberta.