Nunavut suicide inquest: Mother of 11-year-old boy testifies

At the first day of Nunavut's long-awaited suicide inquest, two families talked about the pain of losing a child to suicide and what they want to see done to make improve the dire statistics.

'It sent a shockwave through the community,' says officer of 11-year-old boy's suicide

Iqaluit's Joanasie Akumalik testified Monday about the death of his son, Aapi, as part of a two-week coroner's inquest. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

Nunavut's long-awaited suicide inquest began yesterday with an emotional day of testimony from two families that lost children to suicide. 

Padma Suramala, Nunavut's chief coroner, called for the inquest to investigate why 45 Nunavummiut took their lives in 2013, the highest rate of suicide in the territory's history. 

"I'm lifeless," Bernadette Uttak testified in Inuktitut. 

"A lot of time there is no help from even my own children and I told my older son at one point not to worry if I just fall over and die one day."

Her grandson, Antonio 'Rex' Uttak, took his own life on Aug. 10, 2013, just weeks after turning 11 years old. 

"You think, 'What did I do wrong? What did I do wrong as a parent or grandparent?'" she said. 

Death sent 'shockwave' through Naujaat

Three of Rex's relatives and the RCMP member who investigated his death spoke to a packed courtroom at the Nunavut Court of Justice in Iqaluit on Monday. 

All four agreed he was a happy boy.

None has any explanation as to why he decided to end his life. 

"I never had any negative dealings with Rex," testified Cpl. Terry Burns. "He never surfaced as someone possibly at risk." 

Rex was found dead the morning after spending the night at his aunt and uncle's house, enjoying a night of playing with his younger cousins. 

"It bothered me because he was so young," said Burns. "It sent a shockwave through the community."

Serious overcrowding

Martha Uttak, Rex's mother, had separated from her husband and moved the family to Naujaat from Igloolik two years before. 

At the time of his death, the family was still on the wait list for social housing and living in Bernadette Uttak's four-bedroom home that housed as many as 24 extended family members at a time. 

On top of that, Rex was dealing with the trauma of his older sister being murdered. 

"I think a lot of times he was thinking of his sister," Martha Uttak told the court in Inuktitut.  

"We were healing with each other. He'd tell me his feelings." 

Still, Rex's mother says her son showed no signs that he might harm himself. 

His teachers said he was doing well in school, excelled in Inuktitut and seemed like a normal boy.

"I was very proud of him." 

'I'll never know'

Jurors at the coroner's inquest also heard about the death of Joanasie Akumalik's son Clyde, or 'Aapi,' in 2013. 

Akumalik says he was a normal young Inuk man, but he was shy, had never finished high school and didn't have a job in Iqaluit. 

During his testimony, Akumalik broke down on the stand, telling the jury how his son had not always been so withdrawn. 

More than a decade before his eventual death, Akumalik testified that Clyde had tried to take his own life when the family lived in Arctic Bay. 

"Something had happened and he was embarrassed about it." 

Just last week, Akumalik confirmed with his wife what he has long suspected — around this time, his son was sexually abused. 

Fast-forward to 2013 and Clyde was once again living in Iqaluit, but he was growing more withdrawn. 

"He started to drink quite a bit, probably four months prior to his suicide," said Akumalik, though he says his son was not an alcoholic. 

A toxicology report at the time of Clyde's death also showed that he had smoked marijuana the night he died by suicide. 

"Why did it happen? What was the cause? To me, I'll never know." 

'Make some changes'

Over the course of the day, jurors heard the first recommendations of what should be done to help prevent suicide and support those who have lost someone. 

Cpl. Burns said it would be beneficial for members of the RCMP to have cultural awareness training specific to Inuit before members move to Nunavut to "help you understand why people behave the way they do." 

He also said "you have to work as a team together." 

That's something Burns began to do in Naujaat, where he formed an informal committee of RCMP, social workers and school officials. 

​"We would identify kids [who are acting abnormally] and then formulate a plan." 

In 2014, they identified five or six children who were dealing with some sort of issue and helped them resolve their problems. 

For Joanasie Akumalik, there are certain long-term issues that need to be addressed, including having more affordable housing, improving Inuktitut education and creating more job opportunities for Inuit.

"I'm hoping we're going to make some changes."

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.