Another Spate of Suicides Up North

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Brian Giesbrecht

There is what the CBC Radio host refers to as “yet another spate of suicides” occurring in yet another northern Indigenous community. In this case, it is in Attawapiskat, the First Nation that briefly became famous when its then Chief Theresa Spence staged a nationally televised hunger strike. This is merely the latest in a series of Attawapiskat suicides, along with other serious social problems happening in this dependent and very unfortunate community. 

Last fall, several suicide deaths took place in an Inuk community in Nunavut. Northern Ontario, Manitoba, Labrador, and other isolated places have all been the centres of suicide epidemics of young people–kids are determined to get out of there, one way or the other. 

Meanwhile, on the South Pacific island of Nauru, young people are dying of what is called “resignation syndrome.” The island is used by Australia as the country processes some of the many asylum seekers who intend to enter Australia to improve their lot in life. The Australian government – fully aware that their country can not possibly accommodate hundreds of thousands (and maybe millions) of one-wave immigrants- makes use of the offshore islands like Nauru to keep the number of admissions manageable. The result is a feeling of hopelessness and despair among the asylum seekers who have been stuck on the island for years, with no end in sight to their misery. The youth see no hope and no reason to live. They stop eating or finding any joy in life.

Clearly, the young people on Nauru and those commiting suicide in Attawapiskat, Nunavut, have something in common. In the case of the Inuit and Indigenous adolescents, they live in a prosperous country, but their families do not share in that prosperity. Too often, their families are on welfare, and the children lack proper role models able to show them a more successful life style. Too often, while their television and cell phone screens reflect the affluence of southern people, the stars of pop culture and Hollywood, a sharp contrast emerges between that and what they see around themsqualor, drunkenness, and violence. 

So, just like Nauru children who are left without the answer regarding their fate, the Indigenous adolescents, as well, are continuously losing hope for a possible change.  

In addressing this crisis, the political leaders, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, respond by saying all the expected things. Indigenous politicians express outrage and demand more money and programs from the government. The government bureaucrats promise more spending on yet more crisis counsellors, alcohol treatment facilities, and a whole host of additional fiscal interventions. Others, like left-leaning university professors, pretend that increasing cultural awareness or teaching additional Indigenous history lessons would solve all the problems and prevent future suicides. 

But all these people are pretending, sinking in liesand they know it. They know that the solutions they offer are simply bandaids that will make no real difference. The political leaders and those alike are proficient in going through the motionsthey have done it many times before, and they all know they will be doing it again.

In the interim, the children continue to suffer. For too many of them, the lives they are being told they must live lack meaning. The children do not want the hard life of subsistence hunting lived by their ancestors, and they certainly do not want the lives they see their parents living. What they want is what they see on their devices’ screens but have little hope of getting.  

Nevertheless, not all Indigenous communities endure this problem. Why do some places have high rates of suicide while others do not? As suggested in a study by the University of Northern British Columbia, in healthy communities with good role modelsgainfully employed, sober, and respected adults –the young people have no trouble finding reasons to live. But, in dependent, alcoholic, and violent communities, too many children find only reasons to end their lives.

Regardless of how bitter the reality is, young people in unhealthy Indigenous communities must hear the truth about their situation. For many of them, to have a chance for a successful life means to leave their homes and move elsewherefor better education and more job prospects. If, however, they do not want to leave, they should know what staying entails: learning to become self-supporting and fully independent. 

Because remaining dependent in a sick and impoverished community leads only to suicidal despair.

And then Nauru, Attawapiskat, and Nunavut will be left to watch more of their children die.