North·In Depth

On World Suicide Prevention Day, nobody in Nunavut is untouched, even politicians

With the highest suicide rate in the country, it’s hard to find someone in Nunavut that hasn't been personally affected. 'I've lost an older brother to suicide and it's one of the most hardest things to come across, especially at a young age,' says resident Jutai Toonoo.

'We all have known someone that has taken their own lives in our territory,' says local politican

'I've lost an older brother to suicide and it's one of the most hardest things to come across, especially at a young age,' says Jutai Toonoo, a youth from Cape Dorset. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

With the number of suicides among Nunavut's Inuit 13 times the rate in the rest of Canada, it's hard to find someone in the territory that has not been affected by the issue.

"I've lost an older brother to suicide and it's one of the most hardest things to come across, especially at a young age," says Jutai Toonoo, a youth from Cape Dorset.

"That doesn't mean it shouldn't be talked about," says Toonoo, as he chokes back tears, "That doesn't mean it shouldn't be spoken of more often within families, within youth in general who face these kind of challenges."

Since 1999, 461 people have died of suicide in Nunavut. The youngest was just 11 years old. In 2013 Nunavut had a record 45 people who took their own lives. Nunavut's coroner says this is a crisis and has called an inquest into suicides in Nunavut next week.

With statistics like that it's not surprising that even federal election candidates have been personally touched.

"We all have known someone that has taken their own lives in our territory," says Conservative candidate Leona Aglukkaq.

"I've lost three brothers to suicide, I've lost relatives to suicide, I myself have been under a lot of things where I've gone through heavy stuff in terms of abuse of alcohol and drugs," says NDP candidate Jack Anawak.

"I had to go and tell my five-year-old nephew that his father was gone and that's probably one of the toughest things I ever had to do because how do you explain to a child that their parent is gone?" says Hunter Tootoo, Nunavut's Liberal candidate.

Nunavut's suicide prevention strategy

In 2008 the Government of Nunavut, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the Isaksimagit Inuusirmi Katujjiqaatigiit Embrace Life Council, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police partnered to create the Nunavut Suicide Prevention Strategy. The strategy and action plan are now up for review.

"Suicide is still an issue and it will be an issue for a while," says RCMP spokesperson Yvonne Niego. 

"We need to reduce those numbers through program work, through all kinds of venues. It needs to really branch right out to every home in Nunavut."

Sappho Gilbert is a researcher working with the Isaksimagit Inuusirmi Katujjiqaatigiit Embrace Life Council, a non-profit suicide prevention organization based in Iqaluit. She's working on a project aimed at identifying ways people stay strong in the face of suicide. Her study has included interviewing people in Rankin Inlet, Pond Inlet and Iqaluit.

Turning to family or loved ones for support is one solution, she says. Many people also spoke about the importance of traditional practices on the land as a solution for fighting against suicidal thoughts.  

"Going out on the land: someone described that to me as better than therapy. They said that being out on the land is refuge both mentally and physically," says Gilbert.

Gilbert says many youth she spoke to say they need more recreational and social programs to help them through the dark times. 

"That could include indoor playgrounds, pools, as well as more social and socio-cultural opportunities like more dance hall events, as well as a movie theatre."

Candidates disagree on how to address suicide

But it takes time and political will to fund these things, and while the politicians' personal stories in relation to suicide are similar, they don't agree on ways to tackle the problem.

Conservative candidate Aglukkaq says the Harper government has been funding programs to address mental health and suicide.

"Recently we renewed funding to the Nunavut government; $30 million was announced with the health minister for Nunavut," says Aglukkaq.  

Her opponents says the Conservatives have not adequately invested in suicide prevention in the North.

"This government has cut back on a lot of the programs that were meant for not just Inuit, but for aboriginal people. When those programs are cut then you can't deliver the kind of programs [that are needed]," says Anawak.

Anawak says, if elected, the NDP would re-invest in social programs that address suicide.

"I'm an activist. If I was to be in a position of being able to do something about this, I would make sure that those programs are implemented, those strategies are implemented."

Liberal candidate Tootoo also says federal funding and a lack of a national suicide prevention strategy is a problem.

"I think one of the challenges that the territorial government has is a lack of resources," says Tootoo. 

He says one solution would be to meet with the territory to address the root causes of suicide.

"One thing that the Liberal Party is committed to is long-term funding, stable funding, so that the territorial government can identify their priorities like social housing."

While the politicians debate the funding, some people across Nunavut have taken matters into their own hands to raise awareness about suicide. To commemorate World Suicide Prevention Day, communities across Nunavut are taking part in a campaign to walk, run and cycle more than 4,000 kilometres — that's the distance from Sanikiluaq, the territory's southernmost community, to Grise Fiord, the northernmost.

"There's always, always light at the end of the tunnel," says Jutai Toonoo. "If you're going through a hard time, always remember there's someone who's there for you."

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.


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