Hope, help and healing: National suicide prevention conference begins in Iqaluit

Around 600 people are in Nunavut's capital this week taking part in the Canadian Association of Suicide Prevention's annual conference.

'We have to do a better job of taking care of our children,' says ITK president Natan Obed

ITK president Natan Obed speaks to hundreds of delegates at the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention's annual conference at Inuksuk High School in Iqaluit on Thursday. (CBC)

Imagine living in Ottawa and being forced to go to Mexico City for treatment, where the doctor speaks another language and doesn't understand your culture.

This is the reality for Inuit who struggle with mental health and addictions across Canada's North, says Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed, a message he delivered Thursday morning to a few hundred delegates packed into the gymnasium of Inuksuk High School in Iqaluit for the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention's annual conference.

"Think about the distance between say Grise Fiord and [Resolute] and Ottawa, and think about the linguistic jump from Inuktitut as the first language to English as the first language," Obed said. 

"Put yourself in those shoes if you're from the South and you're thinking about the care you receive and then think about the care that we receive and in the environment we receive it in, and think about how different it is," he said.

Natan Obed told delegates that creating social equity in health, housing, and education is key to addressing the high suicide rate in Inuit Nunangat. (CBC)

600 delegates

Around 600 people are in Nunavut's capital this week taking part in the conference. Organizers are calling it the largest yet, featuring about 80 sessions focusing on hope, help and healing.

Since the 1980s, ITK says approximately 750 Inuit have died by suicide across Inuit Nunangat, made up of four regions including the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Nunavik in Northern Quebec and Nunatsiavut in Northern Labrador encompassing around 60,000 Inuit. That's about the population of Fort McMurray, Alta.

"If you could imagine that many people would have died by suicide in that community, there would be a national response," Obed said.

"Creating social equity is a keystone for this work. Health, housing, education — these are the keystones for a better society," he said.

"We have to do a better job of taking care of our children."

In July, ITK launched an Inuit-led suicide prevention strategy, receiving $9 million from the federal government. That money will be spent on front-line services, training and resources for early childhood development and Inuit-focused suicide prevention.

Helping young people

"In Canada, this is mainly a youth epidemic, it's not only Indigenous. But it's also true around the world," said CASP's first past president Antoon Laenars, who has studied suicide among Indigenous populations across the world, from Australia to Brazil and in Canada's Arctic.

CASP's first past president Antoon Laenars says he's seeing many of the same issues as he did when CASP held its annual conference in Iqaluit in 1994, but that there has been some progress nationally. (CBC)

"We need to help our young people. We need to give them hope; we have to give them meaning," Laenars said.

Laenars said he's seeing the same issues as he did decades ago when CASP held its annual conference in Iqaluit in 1994.

But there's been some movement. For one, he says he and CASP are no longer "blacklisted" by Ottawa.

"We were raising issues and they didn't want to listen," he said.

"It appears that the people in Ottawa don't like me asking questions [like], 'how many of our young people are you going to let die?'

"Unless we make this a national issue, unless we get the government to accept a national framework, which the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention has been working on, nothing is going to get done."

He added that, together, everyone's efforts are building positive momentum.

"Hope is hope is hope is hope," he said.

"Believe it. Hope is in you sitting there and hope is in every person listening today. It depends on each one of us. It takes the community. All of us."

The conference is scheduled to wrap up on Saturday.

If you are in crisis you can call Nunavut Kamatsiaqtut at 1-800-265-3333, or Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.

In an emergency, contact your local health centre or the RCMP.