Opinion

'The hardest part of being from a Northern Indigenous community is all the deaths'

At the age of 35 I can honestly say I do not know how many people I know who have drowned, died in a car crash, a house fire, snowmobile or boating accident, or killed themselves. I don't like to keep track, I just know the answer is a lot — too many.

Grieving becomes part of our culture as we face tragedies head on, again and again

A kudlik (or qulliq in the rest of Inuit Nunangat) is a traditional Inuit oil lamp, and is a symbol of Inuit resilience and spirit. (Ossie Michelin)

After a recent death a colleague said to me, "I guess we're reaching that age where our friends start to get sick and die off," and at that moment I realized that while we may inhabit the same space, we come from different worlds.

Growing up in Labrador, my memories of losing people to boating accidents, car crashes, suicide, cancer, illness, and even murder stretch back as far as I can remember. At the age of 35 I can honestly say I do not know how many people I know who have drowned, died in a car crash, a house fire, snowmobile or boating accident, or killed themselves. I don't like to keep track, I just know the answer is a lot — too many.

What a lot of people don't grasp is that the hardest part of being from a Northern Indigenous community is all the deaths. I'm from a town of less than 500 people; my larger home region of Labrador has a total population under 30,000 people. Our communities are tightly knit with kinships, families, and ancestors connecting us all in a web of relationships. When someone dies, it plucks at that web and we all feel it.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2017 Inuit had the lowest average life expectancy in the country. The Canadian average for men is 79 and women is 83; for Inuit, the average life expectancy for men is 64 and for women, 73. Does this 10 to 15-year gap mean that we don't tend to live past our 60s and 70s? Anyone spends time in our communities will tell you that while there may be many, many youth (we also have the youngest population average in the country) there is no shortage of Elders. What is responsible for this discrepancy is the fact that so many of us die tragically young.

'Death rolls into town'

At times it feels like death rolls into town like a heavy fog that hangs in the air. Everyone is tense as we wait to hear what next. A string of deaths can often lead to more death, as each passing of a life tears at our community fabric and mental health. People are left feeling desperate, lost and questioning everything.

We are shockingly undersupplied in mental health services in the North, but at least we have our strong community connections to help us get through the unimaginable.

Mist over Nain Harbour. (Ossie Michelin)

As someone who has witnessed many people I know passing in my lifetime, there are some communities in Labrador my heart just aches for. The community of Nain has had so many tragedies and death in recent memory that they have their own hashtag #Nainstrong.

As someone living in the periphery of this community, with many friends there, it boggles the mind how a place of only 1,500 people can have multiple deaths a month for what feels like years at a time, and you hope and pray that everyone there can just have a break for a year or two. No one deserves to see so many taken from their community so young.

Labrador is a place with one of the highest suicide rates on Earth. Some communities are still losing children to tuberculosis, our roads are dangerous and claim more lives than they should and it is still a place where Mother Nature can easily take your life. All of this can wear away at our collective soul. You can hear it in the voice of a grandmother who has witnessed losing another child or grandchild; you can see it in the eyes of the child whose father isn't coming back; you can hear it in the anger and pain of people trapped in cycles of addictions and violence. But we carry on for those left alive and for those to come.

'Why don't they just move?'

I once overheard a snide remark from someone saying, "If I lived up there, I'd want to kill myself too." And I've encountered this question a lot in less vulgar terms: "If it's so bad, then why don't they just move away?" And the answer is that despite the hardships, the death, it is so worth it. Our roots run deep, our families have been friends for generations, the Land is beautiful, and when we participate in our culture with our community we know that this is where we belong. Sometimes we have to leave our communities for our own well-being, but for many, that is not an option.

Grieving has become part of our culture; it's what we do now. If you could use one word to describe Inuit, Innu or other Northern Indigenous Peoples it would be resilient. We face our tragedies head on, again and again, and with each senseless death, our communities snap together like clockwork. Food is made for families, phone calls and phone calls, memorials are held and we all collectively share pictures and memories. You can see bitter rivals and frenemies drop whatever they are squabbling over at the moment to help because helping one another's hurt is the best way to heal.

'Help each other'

For those of us living away, we feel the loss in a different way. It is very expensive to fly to small northern communities, and for most, all but impossible to do so on short notice. So you have to watch from afar over social media, phone calls with family, and friends. You feel guilty you can't be there in person for everyone, but at the same time you long to be there for yourself, so your community can be there for you, too.

Even though we are seeing signs of improvement, and Indigenous Peoples are reclaiming our cultures, power, and pride, the situation is just as dire as ever. We are raising our children in the same environment that has taken so many from us. We want to work toward building a better future for them, for all of us, but some days that seems impossible. The only thing we can do is help each other, and try to take just a little bit of the pain away, in hopes that what we are doing now will mean a better tomorrow in our communities.

As they say in Nain, if you see someone who is not having a good day, then create a good day.

This is written in memory of George Lampe and for the people of Nain.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.