The Next Chapter

Duncan McCue on the struggles facing Indigenous youth

In this excerpt from Duncan MCCue's memoir, he writes about why so many Indigenous teens and youth are committing suicide.
In his new memoir, journalist Duncan McCue remembers the five months he spent with a Cree family in northern Quebec. (Nonvella Publishing)

As a teenager, Duncan McCue didn't know how to trap or speak Cree. But that didn't stop him from spending a winter on the trapline with a Cree family in northern Quebec, on James Bay. In his new memoir, The Shoe Boy, the CBC journalist reveals he was once suicidal - and shares his feelings about the terrifying frequency of suicide in Indigenous youth. Here is an excerpt from The Shoe Boy:

As an adult, a journalist, I have interviewed mothers, fathers, aunties, uncles who weep and tremble and ask, over and over – Why?
Suicides account for a third of deaths of Indigenous youth in Canada. Alarmingly, Indigenous youth are six times more likely to die of suicide than non-Indigenous youth.

Six times more likely to die of suicide.

I feel the need to repeat it, because we're numb to these statistics – so often recited by media when referring to the grim conditions so many Indigenous communities endure. I myself have quoted these statistics, standing in front of a camera to tell the country about yet another community pleading for help because young people are killing themselves.

Which is why I am distressed by this sudden recollection, this thing buried deep in my brain that I've never told anyone: I was once suicidal.
Could I have been one of those young people? Surely not.

Put aside the difficulties I would have had committing the act. Even now, it's beyond me how one cleanly kills oneself with a rifle. My seventeen-year-old self certainly didn't plot details or even mull over how to point a three-foot-long rifle at my head, and somehow pull the trigger, more than an arm's length away.

Nor was I from Pikangikum or Onigaming or Sheshatshiu or any number of other impoverished First Nation communities now synonymous with "suicide epidemic."

I wasn't a teenager who watched his mother's alcoholic boyfriend smash a fist into her belly so many times that she vomited on the couch, or who had an ignorant white teacher humiliate him in front of the class by demanding he read The Great fucking Gatsby out loud, or who had eaten nothing more than Wonder Bread with thinly spread Skippy peanut butter for the past six days, or who had a girlfriend who slept with another boy because his parents had a new MXZ Iron Dog snowmobile, or who had no qualms about huffing gas because no one could get their hands on a bottle that night.

There are too many Indigenous kids, surrounded by the violence and ill-health that accompanies grinding poverty, who see no other way out of their lives of ennui and despair but to kill themselves. I was not one of those kids.

Or was I?

In fact, people who have at least a high school education are almost twice as likely to die by suicide than those who have less than a high school education. Some studies suggest increased level of education may put Indigenous youth at increased risk for suicide.

I was, like so many Indigenous youth struggling their way into adulthood, acutely aware of what I was not. I did not speak my Native language, I was not a very good hunter, I did not know how to sew moccasins. I felt like a pretty lousy Indian.

Yet, I also did not look like the people on the television beamed to us from the south. I had no desire to become a chartered accountant or a lawyer in a glassy downtown office. I was uninspired by so many white measures of success. Even if I could attain them, I wasn't sure I wanted to.

Zits. Horniness. Pressure to fit in. Those are common afflictions of teenagers everywhere. But stir in the distress of feeling totally useless. That's what it's like, to be caught between two cultures. That's what so many Indigenous youth feel – every day of their lives.

Those who commit suicide don't necessarily want to die. They just want to stop the pain.

From The Shoe Boy by Duncan McCue ©2016. Published by Nonvella.

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