Suicide of 11-year-old Nunavut boy sparks outrage, but what will change?

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Suicide of 11-year-old Nunavut boy sparks outrage, but what will change?

Aboriginal Canadians, especially First Nations young people, have by far the highest rates of suicide in Canada.

Still, news that an 11-year-old boy in Nunavut killed himself has shocked Canadians.

Of course it must stop. But how?

Despite periodic reporting of suicide clusters in aboriginal communities, ordinary people feel helpless to tackle the despair, isolation and hopelessness that plagues these places. Drug and alcohol abuse, violence, rape and sexual abuse of children become endemic. The young especially feel trapped.

[ Related: Crisis of suicide, drug addiction deepens among northern Ontario First Nations ]

Imagine being 11 and concluding your life is over.

Whenever these stories break, they're followed by calls to "do something." But despite promises to provide more mental health services, support for families and greater economic opportunities, little seems to change in these remote places.

The report on Nunatsiaq Online that an 11-year-old boy killed himself in Repulse Bay, a village of about 750 on the northwestern shore of Hudson's Bay, triggered predictable calls for the Nunavut government to deal with the territory's sky-high suicide rate.

“The silence is deafening,” former Nunavut MP Jack Anawak, now a vice-president at Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., told the news site.

“The leadership doesn’t want to rock the boat. It’s time people started saying ‘let’s talk about it,’ rather than saying ‘if we don’t talk about it will go away’. "

The Huffington Post noted Nunavut's suicide rate — whose 34,000 population is about the size of Moose Jaw, Sask., — far outstrips the rest of Canada, averaging 65.1 per 100,000, compared with the national average of 11.5. Even other northern territories such as the Yukon (5.9) and Northwest Territories (16) experience far lower suicide rates.

Aboriginal youth kill themselves at five or six times higher rates than their non-aboriginal counterparts.

[ Related: Canadian researchers find alarming rise in suicides among teen and pre-teen girls ]

Health Canada says suicide rates for Inuit youth (Inuit make up the largest percentage of Nunavut's population) are 11 times the national average and are among the highest in the world.

The Huffington Post pointed out there was a similar spasm of outrage and demands for action after three people, including two teens, killed themselves in the Nunavut community of Pangnirtung in May.

The territory created a suicide-prevention action plan in 2011, including public awareness and education campaigns and improved access to counselling for isolated communities. But critics have questioned its effectiveness, according to The Canadian Press.

For me, it comes down to this. For those of us living in that 200-kilometre-wide strip of Canada along the U.S. border, much of what happens in the North seems to have little connection with our lives.

We shake our heads about the problems on First Nations reserves or northern communities reached only by plane, but we can't seem to relate.

[ Related: Canada's elderly at high risk of suicide, can't afford mental health care: experts ]

Do we feel the same detachment when it happens in our front yard?

What if we treated the death of this 11-year-old northern Canadian boy with the same ongoing outrage as we have the suicides of Rehtaeh Parsons or Amanda Todd? Maybe then we'd push our leaders to actually "do something."