Nunavut suicide inquest: Inuit plead for help to address trauma

A six-person jury heard some emotional final arguments before beginning their deliberations yesterday. The jury now has the monumental task of compiling a list of 'brief and clear' recommendations to prevent people from taking their own lives.

To overcome historical injustices Inuit says they need resources to revive language, culture

Greiving father Joanasie Akumalik addressed the jury for the last time Thursday at Nunavut's suicide inquest. Yesterday would have been his son Clyde's birthday. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

On the first day of jury deliberations at the Nunavut suicide inquest, the Government of Nunavut and the RCMP called for practical and manageable recommendations, while Inuit organizations argued for broad-reaching goals that would address the territory's many systemic issues. 

The jury is tasked with examining the lives of Antonio 'Rex' Uttak and Clyde Akumalik and suggesting how to prevent future deaths by suicide. 

"You must not be emotional in your decision-making process," said Kathryn Kellough, the lawyer representing the Akumalik family. 

But when Clyde's father Joanasie Akumalik addressed the jury for the last time, a muffled sob sprang from the jury box and several members of the court reached for tissues.

"This evening we would be celebrating Clyde's birthday," Akumalik began.

If he had not died by suicide, Joanasie Akumalik said the family would have had a small celebration. 

Close family members would have come over "either with a pot of seal meat or caribou." Then the family might have enjoyed a birthday cake while Clyde and his twin brother Clayton unwrapped small gifts.

"This evening we [cannot] do that."

Change could take years

Over nearly two weeks, the six-person jury has been given several binders full of research, reports and tool kits, which the presiding coroner hopes will guide them in their decision. 

The jury can choose to support all or some of the recommendations submitted by expert witnesses and contained in an independent evaluation of the Nunavut Suicide Prevention Strategy.

Later today, they are expected to return to the courtroom with a series of "brief" and "clear" recommendations to prevent future deaths. 

Throughout the inquest, several people have called on the government to put a single person, with the authority to make program commitments, in charge of suicide prevention. 

But government lawyer Marsha Gay says any recommendations which require an overhaul of the government structure's budgetary process are "not practical."

She warned that suicide is a "multifaceted" problem, with ties to deeply-rooted societal issues.

"[Changes] may not come instantly. They may not come for years, maybe generations."

Government, RCMP recommendations

The territory said recommendations need to be "doable," citing 10 possibilities that include a public acknowledgement that "suicide is a crisis" and assessments of various training and educational programs. 

Last week, expert witness Brian Mishara made an impassioned plea for increased government funding, saying if his daughter were in danger he would give every penny he had.

"What parent wouldn't do that?" said Gay."Unfortunately, the Government of Nunavut can't do that."

Tracy Carroll presented four recommendations on behalf of the RCMP, including exploring ways to provide more service in Inuktitut and continuing existing community programs that teach proper storage for firearms and ways to recognize signs of childhood sexual abuse. 

The lawyer went on to say that "no recommendation for federal government funding should be made."

That's something several witnesses asked for, but Carroll argued the jury does not have enough information about how the Nunavut government and Inuit organizations are using existing funding.

"The GN's [Government of Nunavut's] budget is provided by the federal government according to a territorial funding formula and the federal government provides funding to the Inuit organizations as required under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement," she said.

'Inuit need to heal'

When Kiah Hachey made her submission on behalf of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. she laid much of the blame on historical injustices from the Government of Canada, including attempted assimilation, forced relocation and the residential school system.

The "intergeneration trauma" from these past policies are still causing Inuit intense emotional problems, she argued, and it's the federal government's responsibility to "help Inuit to reclaim our identity, language and custom."

"Inuit need to heal," she said. "We need resources." 

The only way to break the cycle, according to Hachey, is to address the complex societal woes that Nunavummiut struggle with: childhood abuse, poor education and food insecurity.

"Early childhood development opportunities, access to quality daycare, access to proper daycare, access to proper nutrition and measures to ensure that children are protected from abuse and neglect will provide protective factors to Nunavut children."

Yvonne Niego, with Nunavut's Embrace Life Council, followed Hachey's call for action. 

There are people across the territory who are doing things to address suicide, Niego said, "yet our rates remain still astounding to us all."

The answer, she said, includes improved and sustained funding for community-led programs, which allow residents to find their own ways of dealing with the problem. 

"Our elders have requested to reclaim their rightful places in society," she said. 

"There is hope and there are ways to embrace life."