'Don't give up': Inuit youth hopeful about federal study on suicide

Living in a community plagued by suicide means being afraid to answer your phone, say young Inuit leaders. But the group hopes MPs will find ways to address 'social inequities' at the core of the issue.

Suicide is preventable, but addressing it will mean removing tremendous barriers, Inuit leaders tell MPs

Nina Ford, the Nunatsiavut Government's youth representative, Maatalii Okalik, the National Inuit Youth Council president, and Alicia Aragutak and Louisa Yeates, the president and vice-president of Nunavik's Qarjuit Youth Council, say they're hopeful the federal government will listen to their needs. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

When Nina Ford began testifying on "the grueling effects of suicide" in Indigenous communities, she said it was impossible to explain to outsiders. 

But by the time she was finished, she thought the members of the House of Commons standing committee on Indigenous and northern affairs might be ready to make a difference. 

"For the first time in many years, I actually feel confident I actually feel hope," said Ford, the youth representative for the Nunatsiavut Government.

"Now, we finally have them listening."

Six Members of Parliament from different parts of Canada and different political parties flew to Iqaluit for the public meeting.

The standing committee is collecting research for a report about suicide among Indigenous peoples and communities — what chair Andy Fillmore calls the most important Indigenous issue they could tackle. 

'Your heart stops' when the phone rings 

In the few months that the committee has been working on the report, they've heard from many experts on the statistics behind suicide.

On Friday, they found out about the issue's emotional toll. 

"There's not a year that goes by without suicides," said Ford. "Suicide is such a common tragedy that every time the phone rings your heart stops." 

Coming from Makkovik, a Labrador community of about 370 people, Ford says each suicide leaves an indelible mark on your psyche. 
Makkovik is a small Inuit community in Labrador.

"You feel helpless. When you lose someone to suicide, your immediate and everlasting grief is: 'I should have known,'" she struggled to say. 

"That's not just a feeling, it's a burden."

But like her colleagues from Nunavut and Nunavik, Ford said she's found a way forward — by reconnecting with her Inuit culture. 

Heal 'unresolved trauma and grief'

With a sealskin parka draped across the back of her chair, National Inuit Youth Council president Maatalii Okalik said when young Indigenous people show pride in their language and culture, they defy Canada's history of cultural annihilation — and that can give Inuit the strength to move forward.

"Suicide prevention is closing the gap of social inequities for Inuit Canadians," she said. "We must heal the unresolved trauma and grief."

From the start of the meeting at 8:30 a.m. until the last member of the public spoke close to 5 p.m., witnesses reiterated a similar plea.

They all want to see increased and sustained federal funding to support cultural programs and address the high cost of living, poor rates of educational attainment and lack of social housing among Inuit communities.

Overcrowded housing leaves no room to hide

Louisa Yeates, one of two people representing Nunavik's Qarjuit Youth Council, says the need for social housing is critical.

"It's not easy for youth to have no options when it comes to their living situations," she explained. 

"Often caught up in overcrowded, not-well-maintained dwellings, it becomes overwhelming as the pressure to just survive is immense."

Children who are removed from overcrowded homes and taken out of their communities face other issues, says Okalik, who went so far as to describe the practice as "the new residential school." 
Homes along Iqaluit's shoreline. A lack of social housing is one thing Inuit leaders hope this federal standing committee will help fix. (Timothy Neesam/CBC)

Yeates carried on the discussion saying the Youth Protection Act in Quebec is "not culturally relevant," drawing cheers from those watching the proceedings.

"There are standards for foster homes that are totally ridiculous and nothing to our realities," she said, describing the limitations on the size of rooms and even location of furniture in foster homes. 

"We're in overcrowded dwellings already as it is. If we have an extra bed and a safe home and food in our fridges, that should be okay."

Housing by the numbers

George Hickes, Nunavut's minister responsible for suicide prevention, says housing is a "critical need" and has relied on an "infrequency of investments" for too long. 

Nunavut is short by more than 3,000 social housing units and Hickes says each year the territory is "going backwards anywhere between 85 to 100 units" because of population growth.

"Housing has such a diverse impact; you're talking health, you're talking education, mental health, the opportunity for violence in a household when you're living in an overcrowded household," he said.

Okalik also pointed to the need for social housing, but was quick to point out that "no issue can be tackled stand-alone.

"Double standards can no longer exist." 

A message of hope 

As the four youth leaders spoke, the small conference room filled with Iqaluit high school students. 

Motioning to the group, Fillmore asked each of them to describe how they were able to overcome their own personal challenges. 

It's common to rebel against your community and culture, said Yeates, as she described her teenage years to the group of politicians. 

"They're just trying to cope with something that's missing that they don't know [what it is]."

But as Yeates grew emotional, she turned away from the committee, looking out into the crowd. 

"Don't give up. I was there too," she called out. "I was at the end of that bottle. I was being kicked out of school. I was pregnant."

It's always possible to turn your life around, despite the damage done to you in the past, she said. 

"We need to own our present."

If you are feeling suicidal you can call the Kamatsiaqtut Help Line. It is anonymous and confidential: (867) 979-3333 or (800) 265-3333. You can also call the Kids Help Phone to speak to a counsellor: 1-800-668-6868.