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Nunavut's Suicide Inquest: Slow but Positive?

by Nicola on 2015-10-13

Suicide Inquest: Positive Progress?

Dr Nicola Davies

In 2013, Nunavut’s Chief Coroner, Padma Suramala, sent out a desperate cry for help to deal with what she termed “our community under crisis.” She had dealt with nine suicide cases in a single month, but the tenth, that of a 13 year old girl, was to prove the trigger for the call that led to the suicide inquest itself.

More than two years later, the inquest findings were announced: 2013 had indeed been a record year for deaths by suicide among the native residents of Nunavut, and the jury confirmed the coroner’s assessment that a public health crisis should be declared. They recommended the creation, by April 2016, of a secretariat that would be supplied with the necessary resources to “demonstrate the government’s commitment” to resolving the crisis.

Nevertheless, critics have remarked that the response to the situation has been too slow. There was an immediate response, they say, to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis, which killed 45 people. In 2013 alone, 46 Inuit ended their own lives, and since 1999, there have been 479 suicides in the community.

Why are there so many suicides in Nunavut?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) found that one of the reasons for the social problems that have led to high suicide rates relates to the scandalous abuses inflicted on the generation that was forced to attend residential schools. This trauma has had far-reaching implications – even for the children and grandchildren of the people who were sent to them.

This trauma has had behavioural repercussions for its victims and their children and, moreover, there may also be a genetic reaction to the trauma. Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Dalhousie University, Amy Bombay, of the Anishinaabie Rainy River First Nation, has directed her research at the ways in which such trauma affects later generations.  She found that having a parent or grandparent that attended residential school increased the likelihood of psychological problems and suicide among both adults and children.

Apart from affecting our psychology and social behaviour, she suggests that trauma can actually “turn off” or “turn on” particular genes, changing their function.  The DNA remains the same, but the way in which it expresses itself may be altered. Although the discovery of this phenomenon was based on a study of children of Holocaust survivors, Amy says that it shows one of the ways in which the effects of trauma are passed on through generations.

Have the TRC and the Suicide Inquest done enough?

The TRC’s 94 calls to action propose a wide range of social interventions in areas ranging from education to health and the protection of cultural rights. They have also called for positive steps to be taken in order to promote the rights of indigenous people in line with United Nations policy.

The Suicide Inquest, however, has only recommended that one of these recommendations be adopted, this being number 21, which calls for funding to support new and existing “healing centres” to “address the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual harms caused by residential schools.” The appointment of a minister and secretariat tasked with addressing the tragic problem of suicide could also prove to be a positive move, but it seems likely that any results will be slow to manifest themselves.

Indeed, as some commentators have observed, ‘throwing money’ at the problem is not the only solution. Rapid, practical interventions that impact directly on Nunavummiut who are at risk are required. The Canadian Emergency Management Act says that a territory can call for help and resources when impacted by an emergency or disaster. The scope of the suicide epidemic in Nunavut would certainly seem sufficiently disastrous to call for rapid emergency help, but to obtain this, a territory has to ask for assistance, and this has not happened. It would therefore seem that the Nunavummiut will have to look to their regional political leadership if they hope to see greater urgency in implementing measures to address the present socio-economic impacts of past trauma, and in particular, the soaring suicide rate.

All in all, the findings of the TRC and the Suicide Inquest represent some positive progress; but decisive action has to be taken more quickly. After all, as the Suicide Inquest acknowledges: this is an emergency situation.





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