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CANADA: How federal leaders plan to address the Indigenous suicide crisis

Many Indigenous communities have declared a state of emergency over the suicide crisis

For decades, the suicide rates among First Nations, Inuit and Métis people in Canada have been many times higher than for the non-Indigenous population.

Recent estimates suggest that suicide rates among Indigenous peoples in Canada are at least three times higher than non-Indigenous peoples. For Inuit people specifically, the rate is 9 times higher.

Many Indigenous communities have declared states of emergency over the suicide crisis. In 2016, the First Nation of Attawapiskat received international media attention after it declared a state of emergency following nearly a dozen suicide attempts in one night, including one by an 11-year-old. In the months before that, there were 100 other suicide attempts.

This August, God’s Lake First Nation declared a state of emergency after four young people died by suicide. There had been dozens of suicide attempts all summer in the northern Manitoba community of around 1,500 people.

“We must develop a comprehensive plan in partnership with the federal government, otherwise the crisis will continue, and we will continue to experience tragedy and trauma,” said God’s Lake Chief Gilbert Andrews at the time.

Ahead of the federal election, First Nations leaders and health advocates are urging parties to prioritize this issue and are reflecting on the ways it was addressed over the last four years by the previous Liberal government.

“There is no silver bullet for suicide prevention,” said Carol Hopkins, executive director of the Thunderbird Partnership, which specializes in addictions and mental health advocacy for Indigenous Peoples.

She said that a number of mental health and suicide prevention initiatives have been pursued under the Liberal government but that gaps in funding and oversight remain a significant barrier to making lasting progress.

The Assembly of First Nations released a federal election priorities document in September that called on parties to “work diligently to ensure First Nations enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”

The NDP’s is the only electoral platform that specifically mentions suicide among Indigenous communities, promising the party will “work in partnership with Indigenous communities to improve access to mental health and addiction services — including an evidence-based action plan to prevent suicide, backed by dedicated federal sources.”

It also pledges to implement the NDP motion previously passed by the House of Commons on suicide prevention.

The Liberal platform includes a host of commitments for Indigenous Peoples, including eliminating all long-term drinking water advisories on reserve by 2021, ensuring the availability of “high-quality, culturally relevant” health care and mental health services, addressing all major infrastructure needs by 2030 and fully implementing the Indigenous Languages Act.

It also says the party would “take action to implement” the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) by the end of 2020.

Indigenous Services Canada, created under the Liberal government, states that one of its priorities is the development and implementation of a National Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy.

The Green Party platform does not specifically discuss Indigenous suicide rates but states that the party would “wholly implement” the UNDRIP and improve health-care access for Indigenous Peoples.

The Conservative Party has yet to release its platform or make any specific promises related to Indigenous communities on the campaign trail so far. Leader Andrew Scheer represents the riding of Regina-Qu’Appelle, which includes 12 reserves, more First Nations communities than the ridings of any other federal leader.

Scheer also told reporters in September that he will support a national suicide crisis strategy.

“Especially when it relates to Indigenous Canadians, there’s a unique responsibility for the federal government to do that,” Scheer said. “We had a private member’s bill in our party for a national suicide prevention strategy. That’s something I certainly supported and will commit to doing more as prime minister to tackle that very issue.”

Hopkins said there are many pilot projects and research efforts on the suicide crisis funded by levels of government, but many are short term. This poses a problem.

“We have tons of evidence about what works,” she said. “But we don’t have sustainable funding and flexible funding to put those things into place.”

There needs to be a change in philosophy by the government to recognize that Indigenous Peoples “are not optional” and that “our needs are not optional,” Hopkins said. 

Because the suicide crisis is directly linked to the violent history of colonization and ongoing policies stemming from it, Hopkins said it’s important to situate the high suicide rates — and solutions — in that broader context.

“We have to shift our focus and understand that we have to invest in the environment as well as we are investing in the problems of the people,” Hopkins said. “It’s also understanding the problems that they have with the environment around them that sustains the depression, the anxiety and the decision that leads to suicide.”

“If we invest in interventions that are focused solely on the individual, then we’re not going to make any difference at all,” she said.

She said initiatives such as the We Matter campaign, modelled after It Gets Better, is a good example of positive work being done. We Matter is a website created in 2016 by and for Indigenous youth, where people can share stories of hardship and also support. We Matter also has toolkits for Indigenous youth, teachers and other support workers to address mental health challenges.

Hopkins also pointed to a lack of good data on the issue of Indigenous suicides. There’s a lack of co-ordination and consistency of data collection on this issue, and Canada doesn’t break suicide numbers down by Indigenous identity.

A 2018 report by APTN found that while the federal government has spent millions on the suicide epidemics among Indigenous Peoples, there’s very little data on the numbers and scope of the issue. 

“We see these crises pop up every now and again because Indigenous leadership and government have tried to follow the path to explore partnerships for funding, and following that path has not yielded enough results to get a significant impact. And so they’re constantly treading water to try and save their future there,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins added she would also like to see governments support Indigenous people with their own data collection.

“We don’t even know the whole true picture because of the lack of data,” Hopkins said. “My question is what’s high enough? What’s the number? When does that number and that data trigger change?”

A report released by Statistics Canada in June provides what is likely the most comprehensive snapshot of the suicide crisis. Researchers examined suicides among First Nations, Métis and Inuit people from 2011 to 2016 and estimated that there were 1,845 Indigenous people who died by suicide during that time period.

The report situates the crisis within the “historical and ongoing impacts of colonization, forced placement of Indigenous children in residential schools … removal of Indigenous children from their families … and the forced relocation of communities.”

It also highlights some positive trends discovered within the data, including the fact that more than 60 per cent of First Nations bands had a zero suicide rate. Further, several “resiliency factors” are linked to lower suicide rates within Indigenous communities, specifically “cultural continuity.”

This can happen when a high proportion of the community has knowledge of an Indigenous language or when communities “gain control over educational, health care, police and fire services” and establish cultural facilities.

READ MORE: Indigenous communities and water crises — is a real solution in the works?

Alvin Fiddler is the grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), which represents 49 First Nations communities in northern Ontario spanning roughly two-thirds of the province — a population of about 45,000 people.

NAN began tracking suicides in its communities when the deaths began to rise in the mid-1980s — the total since then has reached more than 500. Fiddler told Global News that NAN loses about 18 youth and adults per year to suicide. In 2017, that number jumped to around 38.

He said there are a number of suicide prevention initiatives taking place that seem to be bringing about positive changes. But he said they need more permanent solutions and sustainable funding.

“It cannot just be one year or two years,” Fiddler said.

He also pointed out that a significant factor in discussing solutions to the suicide crisis is the conditions in the communities.

“There’s a lot of challenges around infrastructure,” he said.

“We’re looking at the parties that are running in this election, what sort of platform, or what are they saying about infrastructure on reserve? Are they committed to improving quality of life, making investments on housing and water, on infrastructure and broadband?” he said.

Fiddler referenced the UNDRIP and said implementing that declaration as legislation would be a good place to start on the journey of reconciliation.

“We haven’t even, in my view, begun to really make or take any significant steps towards that. That would have been a really good signal, especially the children and youth, that the government is serious about addressing these issues.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

Youth in crisis can contact Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 or the First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310.

- Global News