A Nunavut MLA is renewing calls to declare the territory's suicide rate a public emergency in order to access resources and deploy what she says the government always talks about: a whole-of-government approach.
Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster, MLA for Iqaluit-Sinaa, raised the issue in the Nunavut legislature last week, calling on the premier and health minister to take action.
"It's time to take another more revolutionary approach to addressing suicide in Nunavut," Brewster later told CBC News.
This spring, Brewster lost her son to suicide.
He is one of 19 Nunnavummiut who died by suicide between January and June 14, according to Nunavut's office of the chief coroner.
In 2022, the office said there were 27 deaths by suicide.
And according to a report from the territory's Representative for Children and Youth, an advocacy organization for young Nunavummiut, in 2021 there were 40.
In a news conference in 2022, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed estimated suicide rates in Inuit Nunangat to be five to 25 times higher than the rate in the rest of Canada.
In November 2021, Iqaluit youth marched to the Nunavut Legislature to protest a lack of mental health supports and demand action on suicide prevention.
Brewster says that declaring an emergency allows government to pull in the resources it needs to take that action.
"The value of any state of emergency or public health emergency, we know from our experience with COVID that resources get pulled together in order to help address an issue," Brewster said.
"We need government to act now for those who are at risk and for those who are traumatized by recent loss."
Young people in Iqaluit marched from Inuksuk High School to the legislative assembly downtown in 2021 to deliver a message to government officials: suicide prevention needs to be addressed now. (David Gunn/CBC)
Brewster said that a whole-of-government approach means engaging the education system, family services, and housing to improve lives and create opportunities people can want for themselves.
"We absolutely must create a healthier Nunavut so that people want to live and we need to address the issue ... and invest in everything that we can in order to break that cycle."
In 2015, a coroner's inquest called on the territorial government to declare a suicide public health emergency. The health minister said at the time that the government was making "slow progress".
Responding to Brewster in the Nov. 7 legislative session, Health Minister John Main said he didn't know if he had the authority to declare a public health emergency. Main added that his department is in the planning stages of a new suicide prevention strategy and he is "a strong believer" that the territory needs additional resources to address suicide rates.
In the legislative assembly, Premier PJ Akeeagok said he's open to Brewster's request and that he's discussing the options with his ministers.
In a later interview with Igalaaq host Eva Micheal, Akeeagok said he was moved by Brewster broaching the subject and that all Nunnavummiut have been affected by suicide.
He said that his government's investments into housing and early childhood education are also a form of suicide prevention and reiterated that he's working with Main on exploring other options.
"[It's] really a very difficult subject but a subject that we have to continue to talk about, but more so see investments to address and combat suicide," Akeeagok said.
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