Work with Inuit on suicide; don't prescribe solutions, ITK urges feds

Canada needs to work with Inuit to implement a comprehensive strategy, rather than rely on simple, fast or cheap solutions for the suicide crisis, ITK President Natan Obed told parliamentarians.

'I came away frustrated,' says Natan Obed of national discussion on indigenous suicide

'I do not believe that it is respectful for the government to prescribe solutions for Indigenous peoples when it comes to suicide,' Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, told parliamentarians Tuesday. (Submitted)

Natan Obed, who represents Inuit from across Canada, says the quick and easy solutions offered by many Canadians just aren't enough to tackle to root cause of the suicide crisis in indigenous communities. 

When Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, spoke to the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs Tuesday, he laid out the complex reality common to many Canadians. 

"Each one of us is personally affected by suicide and this comes from a very early age and it affects our entire life course," said Obed. 

"Imagine a scenario where you grow up understanding how to die by suicide. You have friends, family members, loved ones who have died by suicide. And suicide is normalized in your community."

The rate of suicide among Inuit is about 10 times the national average and first spiked in the 1970s, among the first generation of Inuit to be born on settlements, according to researcher Jack Hicks, who also spoke at the meeting.

Obed said this is "not normal" and demands immediate attention from communities and governments. 

'Frustrated' with national discussion

In April, the Ontario First Nations community of Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency after a spate of suicides, sparking a national discussion about the high rates of suicides in many indigenous communities.

Obed said he was in the House of Commons during an emergency debate on the issue, where Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo spoke about the rate of suicide in the territory. 
Jack Hicks researches the issue of suicide among Inuit populations and spoke as an individual at the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs. (Submitted)

"I came away frustrated and have continued to be frustrated by the way in which the discussion has happened to date," said Obed.

"It is as if Indigenous suicide and Inuit suicide is something completely outside a public health context and somehow the answers only lie with us and us alone."

Many well-intentioned Canadians have become interested in finding solutions to the issue, Obed said, without recognizing the need for proper education and mental health programs — as well as the need to reduce sexual and physical abuse. 

"What they are looking for in many cases is a particular component of suicide prevention that is Indigenous only that usually has something to do with on-the-land camps or cultural continuity, that is relatively cheap."

Nation-to-nation relationship underscored

Jack Hicks, an expert on suicide prevention who appeared as an independent witness, also spoke about the need to address the complexity of the issue. 

"Take a look at the evidence, pay attention to the realities of social disadvantage, unresolved grief, early childhood adversities, the need for culturally appropriate mental health care," he said.

"There is substantial evidence —  clear and compelling evidence the size of the Himalayas — on the relationship between poverty, socioeconomic inequality, mental health outcomes, and suicide behaviours."

After their presentations NDP MP Georgina Jolibois asked the witnesses what message parliamentarians should have for Inuit. 
NDP MP Georgina Jolibois was one of several parliamentarians to ask what the government can do for Inuit, when it comes to the high rate of suicide. (Submitted)

"I do not believe that it is respectful for the government to prescribe solutions for Indigenous peoples when it comes to suicide," Obed responded. 

"Many of the reasons why our communities are the way they are is because of colonization and because of programs and policies of the Canadian government."

Instead, Obed said the government needs to work with Inuit, First Nations, and Mé​tis leaders in a nation-to-nation relationship, to come up with the appropriate solutions to address the risk factors for suicide in their communities — no matter how complex.

"Specific interventions and investments are going to be necessary from different federal departments," he said. 

"This, of course, isn't a three to five year push. This is a generational thing."

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami plans to release its national Inuit suicide prevention strategy on July 27.