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Aboriginal suicide rate rising in Ontario, new report says

Suicide rates are on the rise among aboriginal people in Ontario, but the author of a new report says the deaths are occurring in clusters in just seven northern First Nations.

Spike in deaths occurring in small number of northern Ontario communities, research shows

The Neskantaga First Nation in northern Ontario declared a state of emergency in 2013 after seven youth took their own lives. (Sherry Prenevost)
Suicide rates are on the rise among aboriginal people in Ontario, but the author of a forthcoming report says the deaths are occurring in clusters in just seven northern First Nations.

There were 31 suicides by aboriginal people in Ontario in 2013, more than double the number in 1991, according to research conducted by Gerald McKinley, a postdoctoral fellow at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Clusters of suicides in a limited number of communities account for the increase, McKinley said.

"There are more suicides in fewer communities," he said. "And a larger amount of the communities have very few or no suicides at all over the last 20 years."

In northern Ontario, most of the suicide deaths are children and teens, the study shows.

McKinley hopes his research will help "change the discourse" around suicide to avoid the impression that First Nations youth are predisposed to taking their own lives.

"This is not a First Nations thing," he said. "It has to do with the social determinants of health."

Suicide was rare in northern Ontario First Nations until the 1980s, McKinley said. 

McKinley traces the cause back to the previous generation that came of age in the 1950s. That's when there were changes to the Indian Act to bring it in line with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

"All of a sudden government starts to get more and more involved in people's lives," McKinley said. "There was much more involvement from outside forces, consistent and rapid changes. How do people adapt?"

The way suicide clusters in some First Nations means that it should be viewed as a contagion, he said. The fact that one community in northern Ontario is the only place outside of rural China where more women than men commit suicide also needs to be explored.

McKinley is currently working with Marten Falls First Nation and hopes to engage others in further research looking at the ways communities adapt to social upheaval to provide clues for suicide prevention. 

Clarifications

  • A previous version of this story stated that northern Ontario is the only place outside of rural China where more women than men commit suicide. It is in fact only one First Nation where that is the case, not the entire region.
    Jul 09, 2015 12:13 PM ET