The Current

As Quebec's Nunavik region grapples with youth suicides, leader decries 'beautiful promises' that 'never come'

School and community leaders are pleading for help after a rash of youth suicides among Inuit communities in Nunavik, Que.

'It's not even a crisis anymore; it's a state of emergency,' says school board director Harriet Keleutak

Kativik school board general director Harriet Keleutak was 14 the first time someone she knew killed themselves. (CBC)

Inuit communities in the northern Quebec region of Nunavik are reeling from a recent spike in suicides.

CBC News has so far confirmed 13 deaths by suicide in the region this year, but teachers and crisis team workers put the number higher.

"We need to stop the talking. We need to have action," said Mary Simon, Canada's first ambassador for circumpolar affairs and a longtime Inuit rights advocate. "Action is required in order to get to these children and these youth that are in a place where they can't really climb out of; this darkness on their own." Natalie May, Simon's 22-year-old niece, took her own life last week.

Natalie May loved to be out on the land and was friendly with everyone, according to her aunt Mary Simon. May died last week. (Submitted by Natalie May's family )

Nigel Adams, who tried to take his own life when he was 20, said he feels like the Canadian government is overlooking the crisis.

"Who do we talk to? That's my message to the prime minister and whoever's listening to this from the Canadian higher ups. I know that we voice our opinions. But it feels like we're being swept under the rug like dirt," he said.

Nunavik's school board has called an emergency meeting at the end of the month with Inuit leaders, public service workers and elected government officials.

Harriet Keleutak, the board's director general, says officials and residents are angry and frustrated by what they say is the federal government's lack of action.

Here is part of her conversation with The Current's Friday host Piya Chattopadhyay.

Nunavik has seen this kind of loss before. What's different about this time around, this recent spike in suicides? Is there anything different?

They're getting younger and younger. [The] youngest one being 11. In the past, they were little bit older, even though they were still considered children.

It's in a state of emergency. It's not even a crisis anymore; it's a state of emergency, a clear state of emergency that we're in.

Since the beginning of the school year, we've lost two students, which have affected our frontline workers, [and] our students as well. Like Nigel was saying, there's no help in the community. There's nobody to talk to.

You have 17 schools in your school board, right?


How many mental health workers are there?


There are none?

We have one that travels. But 14 communities, 17 schools — one is not sufficient.

Just to give some context of the size and scope of this: this is one mental health worker serving an area almost the size of the four Atlantic provinces — twice the size of England. There are about 12,000 [to] 13,000 people in that vast region. So one for all of that?

Yes, basically.

When you Harriet, sound the alarm, get frustrated, get sad, get angry — all of those things — to the government, What do you get in return?

Nothing. I'm tired. Maybe, I don't know, I'm not even tired.

I'm just hoping that somebody out there somewhere will understand our reality. Civilian workers decide for us without knowing who we are and what we do. Politicians decide at the government level. They make beautiful promises, but they never come through.

Need to talk?

Suicide Action Montreal | Toll-free from anywhere in Quebec: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)
Tel-Jeunes | Text: 514-600-1002, Telephone: 1-800-263-2266
Canada Suicide Prevention Service | 1-833-456-4566 
Nunavut Kamatsiaqtut Help Line  | Inuktitut speakers, based in Nunavut. It is open from 7 p.m. ET until midnight ET: 1-800-265-3333 

Produced by Samira Mohyeddin and CBC Montreal's Susan McKenzie.