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Declaring Nunavut suicides a crisis a 'small' but important step, says father

Joanasie Akumalik, who lost his son to suicide, hopes the premier's declaration that suicide is a crisis will be only the first step toward preventing more Nunavummiut from taking their own lives. "I'm hoping little things, small steps can be started right away," he said.

'I'm hoping little things, small steps can be started right away,' says Joanasie Akumalik

Joanasie Akumalik, who lost his son to suicide in 2013, is personally thanking Nunavut's Premier for declaring suicide in Nunavut a crisis, but hopes immediate action to prevent deaths will be taken. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

As Nunavut's minister responsible for suicide prevention begins his work, Joanasie Akumalik hopes the declaration of suicide as a territorial crisis will only be the first of many "small steps."

Yesterday, Premier Peter Taptuna told the legislative assembly his government is taking action on the tragedy of suicide, saying "there is not a member of this house or a family in Nunavut that has not been affected."

The actions are the first signs that the government plans to evaluate and implement a long list of recommendations stemming from the recent coroner's inquest, into the exceptionally high number of people who took their own lives in 2013. 

In that year alone, 45 Nunavummiut died by suicide — amounting to a rate 13.5 times the national average. 

"I'm very glad to hear that the legislative assembly acknowledged the recommendations put forward by the Nunavut coroner's office," said Padma Suramala, the territory's chief coroner. 
'The government is trying their best,' says Padma Suramala, Nunavut's chief coroner. She called an inquest into suicides in the territory, after the number of suicides in Nunavut hit a record-high in 2013. (Vincent Desrosiers/CBC)

"Crisis means we cannot wait any longer because so many people have taken their own lives."

The long process begins

Akumalik represented one of two families at the coroner's inquest. His son, Clyde Akumalik ended his life at the age of 25, after struggling with his unemployment, lack of advanced education and past history of sexual abuse, for years. 

Now, Joanasie Akumalik hopes his years of advocating for suicide prevention have paved the way for action. 

"I'm hoping something can start. Like everything else, it's going to cost money to come up with something," he said, "but I'm hoping little things, small steps can be started right away.

"I think now that someone has been identified to take on that role, now the work has to be done."

Minister of Health and Justice Paul Okalik will be the one to lead the government's work, having been given the responsibility to oversee suicide prevention. 

It's a historic step that Suramala says shows the government's commitment to addressing the pressing issue.

"It is really a complex issue that requires a multi-disciplinary approach," she said. 

"I can see that there is lots of movement and everybody is trying very hard to make a difference."

New role will be 'challenging'

This morning, Okalik further explained his new role, saying the government "would like to follow the recommendations" from the coroner's inquest and "will be devoting the required resources." 
Paul Okalik, Nunavut's minister of Health and Justice, says tackling the issue of suicide will take support from everyone. (CBC)

"It is a very challenging responsibility," Okalik acknowledged. "Even though suicide's a very personal tragedy, it impacts everybody, and the community has a role."

Yesterday, Okalik told the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut how suicide has personally touched him: first when his older brother took his own life, then when Okalik, himself, contemplated suicide.

"It was my older sister, Ida, who saved me with her love," Okalik said in Inuktitut. 

Other MLAs stood and clapped to show their support of the move, with even the usually publicity-shy Tony Akoak voicing his concern. 

He wants the federal government to put its own money toward suicide prevention programs, rather than spending millions of dollars looking for Sir John Franklin's lost ships. 

"There is money there for such a cause as suicide," he said. "Maybe they can match the funds they gave while looking for the boat."

Include Inuit youth, urges father

Akumalik and Suramala are both thankful the government appears more committed to suicide prevention than ever, but say there needs to be immediate action taken. 

The government needs to support the creation of healing circles, says Akumalik, echoing a plea he made several times during the recent coroner's inquest. He also wants the issue spoken about more opening in schools. 

"I'm hoping more Inuit or more young people are included in those processes."

Okalik says the process of preventing suicide will take support from all parts of society and "we all have a role in preventing future suicides."

For now, he says anyone who is thinking about the issue of suicide should not and cannot wait. 

"Seek out your support networks. Work with your loved ones."

With files from the CBC's Jane Sponagle

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