Family alcoholism, emotional vulnerability, and the lack of community and education put aboriginal youth on a path to solvent abuse, violence and, all too often, suicide. These are the findings of The Office of the Chief Coroner’s Death Review of the Youth Suicides at the Pikangikum First Nation 2006–2008.
Released in September, the report examines 16 victims, ages 10 to 19, who hung themselves from 2006 to 2008 in the remote northwestern Ontario community of Pikangikum First Nation. In its 215 pages, a picture clearly emerges of children who see a glittering contemporary life on television while living amid unremitting poverty and little economic opportunity at home. Subjected to parental alcohol abuse and familial neglect, they are driven to relieve their misery by sniffing gasoline, glue and other toxic substances, falling into a subculture that constitutes their only sense of community.
“A lack of an integrated health-care system, poor education by provincial standards and a largely absent community infrastructure are uniquely positioned against the backdrop of colonialism, racism and social exclusion arising from the historical plight of First Nations people, including the effect of residential schools,” the report states. “These all contribute to the troubled youth, who appear to exist in a dysphoric state, caught between the First Nations traditions and cultures of their forefathers, and contemporary society which they are poorly equipped to navigate and engage.”
The study was conducted by Ontario Chief Coroner Andrew McCallum and his team after the Nishnawbe Aski Nation and the province called for an investigation of the phenomenon. It offers 100 recommendations for improving the lot of aboriginals and, by extension, Canada, in education, policing, child welfare and health care, among other areas.
Three days before the McCallum report came out, former Pikangikum Chief Gordon Peters wrote a letter to Canadians decrying the suicides of five people ages 16 to 26 in just 44 days over the summer.
“As a member of the First Nation, I feel obligated to let Canada and the international community know about these tragedies,” he wrote, The Chronicle-Journalreported. “We cannot live alone within the boundaries of our reservation and think that this is the way life is.”
Sadly, First Nations are not alone in their predicament. The Inuit also suffer disproportionately from suicide and the factors that contribute to it; their suicide rate is 11 times higher than in the rest of the country, a sad statistic that was marked on Parliament Hill by Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, among others. The Arctic’s 53 communities need mental health and support services, she said, according to Rabble.ca. With 135 suicides per 100,000 people, a majority of them young men, the rate is double the overall aboriginal suicide rate, Simon said. She contrasted those figures with Canada’s suicide rate of 12 per 100,000.
Simon knows whereof she speaks; her niece committed suicide in March.