'We need help now': Peaceful protesters draw attention to Nunavut's mental health crisis

Organizers of a territory-wide demonstration on mental health say that a "suicide epidemic" persists in Nunavut.

150 Iqaluit residents share moment of silence; Arviat participants sing Amazing Grace for suicide victims

Alanna Copland says a mental health and addictions treatment centre planned to open in Nunavut for 2025 is too far away. 'We are dying. We cannot afford to wait five years. Lives are at stake,' she said during a demonstration at the Legislative Assembly Friday. (Beth Brown/CBC)

Organizers of a territory-wide demonstration on mental health say that a "suicide epidemic" persists in Nunavut.

"We need to fight for those people who are silenced, who want to be heard. Not everybody is forthcoming and will speak out loud to get to what we need to accomplish," said Alanna Copland, a law student in Iqaluit who spoke at Friday's peaceful protest. 

Copland calling on the territorial and federal governments to prioritize mental health by making front-line support more accessible, and to have in-territory treatment soon. 

After a moment of silence for Nunavummiut lost to suicide, Copland led a march from the four corners to the Legislative Assembly, while about 150 participants called out "we need help now." 

Many were wearing masks and carrying signs stating "fund healing like mining," or "not band-aid, mental health aid," and "our pandemic matters." One sign had names of people who have died and butterflies to represent each of them. 

Hundreds of deaths since 1999

There were MLAs present, and Premier Joe Savikataaq took part in the march.

In 2015, then-premier Peter Taptuna declared a "suicide crisis" in Nunavut.

Since Nunavut was created in 1999, more than 600 people have died from suicide, said Copland in her speech.

In 2019, there were 38 people who died, according to numbers from the coroner's office.

We cannot afford to wait five years.- Alanna Copland

A similar demonstration was held in Rankin Inlet last week. In Arviat on Friday, participants sang Amazing Grace.

A mental health and addictions treatment centre is scheduled to open in Iqaluit in 2025. It's being worked on by the government of Nunavut, Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated and the federal government.

In Copland's speech on the steps of the assembly, she said this isn't good enough. 

"We are dying. We cannot afford to wait five years. Lives are at stake. We need resources now," she said. "Why are people still falling through the cracks." 

The mental health march in Iqaluit went to the steps of the Legislative Assembly. (Beth Brown/CBC)

Copland shared her own story of spending two years in a treatment centre in Manitoba, for a diagnosis of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and anxiety. 

"I became paralyzed by an invisible illness that I didn't know existed. I was in a very dark place," she said. "Today I have control of my life again. I'm living again. And I want that for all of Nunavummiut."

That experience is why she is advocating for more resources for mental health in the territory, and why she has been working to bring attention to mental health in Nunavut on social media. 

"I try to normalize it so that people open up," she said. "A lot of people are silent because of the stigma associated." 

Copland called the rallies a beginning, and promised to follow up with all levels of government. 

"We will fight for mental health services in Nunavut," she said. 

Arviat residents attend a march for mental health awareness. (Submitted by Jordan Konek)

Organizer says Inuit need 'to stand up'

Another organizer, Jo Ellen Pameolik, shared her story on seeking help at the emergency room because she was waiting too long between mental health appointments.

"The only way the government of Nunavut and the federal government will hear us is if we cry out, we need help," Pameolik said.

It's well known in communities that there are high staff turnovers in mental health positions, she said. The organizers want to see these known areas addressed. 

"The federal government allocated lots of money to COVID-19 and all the while we're still facing suicide," she said.

"I hope they'll react to our protest and come up with better ways to help our Inuit. We've lost way too many young Inuit, and we have to stand up."

Where to get help

If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them about it, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

With files from Toby Otak and Juanita Taylor