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Nunavut's suicide inquest prompts pleas for action, but progress 'slow'

Nunavut residents are calling for immediate action to address a devastating suicide rate, as the territory's government pledges to look at a slew of recommendations from a public inquest.

'I do not accept that there are other priorities,' says psychologist Brian Mishara

Joanasie Akumalik says 'something needs to be done right away' to stem the high numbers of Inuit in Nunavut who take their own lives. His son, Clyde Akumalik, who committed suicide in 2013, would have celebrated his 27th birthday this week. (Vincent Desrosiers/CBC)

People in Nunavut are calling for immediate action to address the territory's devastating rate of suicide, as the territory's government pledges to "evaluate" a slew of recommendations from a coroner's inquest.

Over the past 15 years, Nunavut residents have been nearly 10 times more likely than the Canadian average to take their own lives.

"Everyone, even expert witnesses, were very emotional," said Garth Eggenberger, who presided over the  inquest. "It seemed like everybody had a story about someone they loved and lost unexpectedly.

"From the very young to the very old, it's affecting everyone."

Overcrowding leads to hopelessness

In 2013 alone, 45 people in Nunavut — mostly young, male Inuit — died by suicide. The youngest was Antonio (Rex) Uttak, who took his own life only a few weeks after his 11th birthday. 

"You think, 'What did I do wrong? What did I do wrong as a parent or grandparent?' " his grandmother, Bernadette Uttak, testified in Inuktitut at the coroner's inquest. 

Members of Rex's family spoke about the boy's love for his younger cousins and his high grades. 

The suicide, they say, was impossible to predict.

But the jury heard how Rex, like many young Inuit, lived in the sort of harsh conditions that are considered risk factors for suicide. His family had been languishing on a social housing waiting list for two years, while sharing a four-bedroom home with up to two dozen relatives. 

In Nunavut, 52 per cent of people are in social housing and 3,000 more are on the waiting list. 

"The problem would cost well over a billion dollars to solve tomorrow," testified Lori Kimball, who heads the Nunavut Housing Corporation.

"The number one way we see housing contributing to suicide is the overcrowding situation and the huge wait list for housing in the territory and the sense of hopelessness that comes along with that."

The jury agreed, recommending the Government of Canada increase spending on social housing.

No greater priority

Witness after witness expressed frustration with governmental bureaucracy getting in the way of action.

"We've done some work, but not enough," Paul Okalik, Nunavut's minister of health and justice, said after the recommendations were released.
Psychologist Brian Mishara says he is 'upset' with government representatives who seem to have funding priorities that are leeching resources from Nunavut's suicide prevention strategies. (Travis Burke/CBC)

"We're making slow progress."

But changes will not happen immediately and some could take months, years or even generations.

"I do not accept the idea that there are other priorities," said Brian Mishara, a psychologist and researcher. "If you ask anyone who has a child, 'What would you pay to prevent your child's death?,' people are willing to give anything." 

Experts at the inquest testified that widespread problems in Nunavut, including childhood sexual assault and an abysmal 25 per cent high school graduation rate, are linked to intergenerational trauma. 

From residential schools to resettlement, Inuit suffer from historical injustices, which makes it difficult for them to trust public institutions, said Allison Crawford, a psychiatrist with 10 years experience working in Nunavut.

"If we keep our eye on that and over time really try to provide health services by Inuit for Inuit people, I think that would be real progress."

'Get out and after the politicians'

Eggenberger said these systemic issues can be addressed and the jury's recommendations take a valuable first step, but real action will likely take a public outcry. 

Garth Eggenberger presided over a special two-week inquest into Nunavut's high rate of suicide. He says now it's up to everyone in the territory to demand action. (Vince Robinet/CBC)
People in Nunavut "need to get out and after the politicians. This needs to be at the highest level as a priority that this has to be addressed. That's all there is to it, and if the politicians aren't willing to do it, then they shouldn't be there," he said.

For Joanasie Akumalik, who has worked to break the stigma surrounding suicide since his son Clyde or "Aapi" took his own life in 2013, the recommendations come as "a relief."

But Akumalik said "something needs to be done right away." 

Having received no offer of help from mental health workers following his son's death, Akumalik said he hopes the Nunavut government and its partners will come through with recommended support for grief counselling. 

Akumalik said he has experienced a lot of healing since his son's death, but he will always know the pain of losing something that can never be replaced. 

Still, life in his family moves ever forward. A few months ago, Clyde's twin brother Clayton welcomed his own son into the world. 

"He named him Aapi."

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Paul Okalik's cabinet portfolio.
    Sep 26, 2015 11:06 AM CT

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