Toronto, Canada — A string of suicides in a small, First Nations community in northern Quebec is the result of the “apartheid system” governing Indigenous peoples in Canada, a coroner has concluded.
Quebec coroner Bernard Lefrançois examined the circumstances surrounding five suicide deaths in ‘Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam, an Innu reserve of about 3,000 residents on the North Shore of northern Quebec.
Five residents between the ages of 18 and 46 committed suicide in the community between February and October 2015. One of the five people who died was originally from the nearby community of Kawawachikamach.
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“I believe and see evidence that the great fundamental problem lies with the ‘apartheid’ system into which Aboriginals have been thrust for 150 years or more,” Lefrançois wrote in the report.
The investigation found that Aboriginals are in general more impacted by unemployment, poverty, drug and alcohol consumption, incarceration and crime, domestic violence and suicide than other demographic groups in Canada.
Preventing suicide among Indigenous peoples would involve improving the living conditions in their communities, including economic, cultural, social, and community conditions, the report found.
“It is time to put an end to this apartheid system, and for all of the authorities concerned to confront that challenge,” Lefrançois wrote.
Last April, the First Nations community of Attawapiskat, in northern Ontario, declared a state of emergency after more than 100 people attempted suicide in a seven-month period. Of that number, 11 people reportedly attempted suicide in a single night in Attawapiskat.
“The situation in Attawapiskat is sadly felt by far too many First Nations across the country,” said Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, which represents First Nations communities in Canada.
Bellegarde said a national strategy, led by First Nations peoples, must be established to address the staggering suicide rates in the communities.
“We need a sustained commitment to address long-standing issues that lead to hopelessness among our peoples, particularly the youth. And, we need to see investments from the federal budget on the ground in our communities immediately — to support our families to enjoy safe and thriving communities that foster hope,” Bellegarde said.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted in April that the news from Attawapiskat was “heartbreaking.”
“We’ll continue to work to improve living conditions for all Indigenous peoples,” he said.
But the problem extends far beyond Attawapiskat alone.
The suicide rate among First Nations youth is five to seven times higher than non-First Nations youth, while suicide rates among Inuit youth are 11 times higher than the national average, Health Canada estimates.
According to the Centre for Suicide Prevention, the suicide rate among First Nations males aged 15-24 is 126 per 100,000 people, compared with 24 per 100,000 for non-Aboriginal males. For First Nations females, the rate is 35 per 100,000, compared with only 5 per 100,000 for non-Aboriginal females.
A month before Attawapiskat made headlines across Canada, in March 2016, Pimicikamak Cree Nation (Cross Lake) in northern Manitoba also declared a state of emergency after 140 people attempted suicide in a two-week period.
Aboriginal community leaders have repeatedly called on the provincial and federal governments to do more to address the problem.
That includes greater financial investments into local health care, better training for nurses in remote communities, and specialized care to address the root causes of suicide and self-harm.
An Auditor General report from 2015 revealed that nurses stationed in remote First Nations communities in northern Ontario and Manitoba did not have the necessary training to respond to medical emergencies.
Health Canada had also not taken into account residents’ needs when allocating medical care, the report found.
The Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) states that suicide risk factors are similar for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youth, including depression, hopelessness, low self-esteem, substance abuse, or the suicide of a family member or friend.
But “governmental policies of forced assimilation enacted through the residential school system and the child welfare system” has exacerbated the problem, a 2007 AHF report found.
“The historical roots of current problems must be recognized and addressed to develop effective interventions that can transform intra-familial and intergenerational cycles of suffering,” the report found.
The Canadian government ripped Indigenous children from their homes for decades and placed them in residential schools where they were forcibly assimilated and barred from speaking their native languages.
Physical, sexual and psychological abuse was rampant at these schools, and Indigenous communities still feel the impact of the trauma that the former students experienced.
“When I was 14 years old, a student in my class committed suicide and it just, it affects everybody. It leaves you feeling, you know, just incredibly empty inside because you don’t, you can’t, it’s so hard to understand,” an indigenous youth said in the report, about the impact a suicide has on the wider community. “It’s got such a domino effect and it’s just everyone around gets pushed back and feels the weight of the pressure of that person who killed themselves.”
Among the many recommendations made in the Quebec coroner’s report, Lefrançois said additional, front-line staff must be hired to provide emergency care in ‘Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam.
Canada should also establish an Aboriginal suicide prevention center that could offer services to Indigenous communities on the North Shore of northern Quebec, and employ indigenous responders able to speak the local language, the report stated.
Special attention must also be paid to Indigenous youth, especially those that are grieving the suicide of a family member or friend, and are at increased risk of self-harm.
“A person ends his or her life because they do not see a solution to their problems, and no longer has any hope for the future. What future do Aboriginals have with the present apartheid system?” Lefrançois wrote.
Abolishing Canada’s “ancient apartheid system,” he said, would “allow Aboriginals to be better able to define themselves and strengthen their identity, to preserve their culture and to move forward into the 21st century.”