Inuit in Northern Quebec look to local solutions to tackle suicide

More than 200 Inuit in Nunavik have received specific training on how to talk about suicide and how to help prevent it, in the wake of the recent deaths of 5 young people.

5 young people in Quebec's Inuit territory of Nunavik have taken their lives in recent months

Five young people have taken their own lives in Kuujuaq, Que. since last December. Several people in the community of 2,400 are working together on suicide prevention programs. (Catou MacKinnon/CBC)

To an outsider the day might look like any other winter day in Kuujjuaq, the administrative capital of Quebec's Inuit territory, 1,440 kilometres by air due north of Montreal.

It's late winter, and the roads are still a thick layer of snow and ice. 

At lunchtime, kids at the local school rush home in sneakers despite the –15 degree weather.

Since mid-December, this community has lost young people not much older than these to suicide. Two were 15, two were 18, and one was 20. 

Less than 24 hours after the last funeral, Valerie Lock and Minnie Grey, two people who want to prevent more deaths, sat down in the offices of the Nunavik Health Board to to talk to CBC about the issue.

"Suicide is a problem in Nunavik, and so we were just trying to find things that could help," said Lock, who chairs the regional suicide prevention committee.

She is one of four certified trainers for a program called ASIST, which stands for Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training.

The first time you say the sentence, it's very difficult... Are you thinking about suicide?- Valerie Lock, chair of Nunavik's suicide prevention committee

Lock and the other trainers are Inuit. They have now taught those skills to more than 200 other Inuit since they started giving sessions about 18 months ago. 

She said the sessions are intimate encounters, where people share stories and learn to go straight to the point about being suicidal. 

"The first time you say the sentence, it's very difficult," she says. "It was very difficult for me when I first took the ASIST training to actually say that sentence out loud: 'Are you thinking about suicide?'"

Lock said after asking that question, other questions follow.

"Then you have to get that person reasons for living, and you have to listen to their reasons for dying in order to do that."

Valerie Lock and Minnie Grey are both involved in suicide prevention programs in Nunavik. (Catou MacKinnon/CBC)

Language of suicide 

One of the challenges in Nunavik is navigating the language around suicide, explained Minnie Grey.

Grey is a fixture in the community who has been a negotiator, hospital director, editor, consultant and, twice now, the executive director of the Nunavik Health and Social Services Board.

"In Inuktitut, we've had issues with terminology," Grey said. "Imminiartuk means taking one's own life. So in order to be more empathetic, sympathetic also to the people who have gone through the hurt of suicide, we try to use less harsh words, such as, 'Don't cut life off.'"

Grey said the difficulty in talking about suicide relates to some of the first European religious groups who made contact with the Inuit in the early 19th century. 

"They believed if you took your own life, you're going to burn in hell. That's basically what the Inuit were taught by the missionaries," Grey said.

Sunshine bears down on Kuujjuaq on this cold winter day. (Catou MacKinnon/CBC)

Others in the community fear that talking about suicide can be seen as an encouragement to act on it.

But talking about it – and talking about it in Inuktitut – is at the heart of the two-day program. ASIST, which was conceived in Calgary 30 years ago, includes training material and videos that have been translated. 

They believed if you took your own life, you're going to burn in hell. That's basically what the Inuit were taught by the missionaries- Minnie Grey

Lock says she's been hearing success stories since she started giving the training a year and a half ago. During her last workshop, several people in the room had lost someone they love. 

"These ladies really opened up and left so much stuff off their shoulders. They were really thankful, and they understand it a bit more." Lock said.

Solutions have to come from within

Valerie Lock and Minnie Grey stress that everyone is working together to help – that that is the Inuit way. They also said that help has to come from within.

"It's not to say Inuit versus non-Inuit. It's just that historically, we have many good people who come with good hearts. But those people will leave and with the high turnover rates that we have, a lot of our intervenors won't stay," Grey said. "It's better to build up the base of Inuit working with Inuit." 

Lock said there are sensitive moments in the ASIST training, and it is important for people to feel comfortable with the trainers. 

"This is home, and nobody can understand the reality of our situation more than us."

Last fall, Nunavik held its first-ever regional conference on suicide prevention. It was called puttautiit – which means "life jacket."

Holding that conference was part of a overall plan health officials drew up more than three years ago. Almost everything in that plan has been put in place.

While Lock said she sees the pain and hurt in people's eyes because of the five suicides, she also feels a sense of hope.

"We can't give up. We have to continue doing whatever we can to change the situation in Nunavik."

1-(800) 265-3333 is a helpline with Inuktitut speakers based in Nunavut.  It is open from 7 a.m. ET until midnight ET.

Quebec's suicide prevention helpline is 1-(866)-277-3553 and is open 24 hours a day.