When hope is gone: Aboriginal youth suicides in Canada

Suicide amongst youth has been on the rise since the last few decades, but it has reached new heights of horror this April in Attawapiskat, a remote Aboriginal Reserve in northern Ontario, Canada. In what’s being called a suicide contagion, 11 people attempted to take their lives in a single night. This pushed the Chief of Attawapiskat to call a state of emergency. Further investigation revealed a suicide past involving 13 indigenous youth (others had also attempted suicide this month, including a 9 year old).

The news triggered a series of responses across the country starting in Toronto on April 13, led by the the Idle No More and the Black Lives Matter movements. Protests have subsequently been held in cities including Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg where dozens of people rallied in front of or inside the Indigenous and Northern Affairs (INAC) Offices with demands for action. The demands from Toronto protesters included having Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visit Attawapiskat and calls for more resources being allocated to Aboriginal communities.

What they want is simple, and should have been done long ago: a comprehensive strategy to actually improve the lives of Aboriginal people and grant them the rights given to them by treaties, citing social workers as being an insufficient solution for the problem. Following the protests, Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins announced on April 20 a plan to dedicate two million dollars to Attawapiskat for a Youth Regional Coordination Unit, emergency health care personnel, and support staff. It’s a start.

Others across the country came together in solidarity with Attawapiskat youth and protesters in Toronto. In Gatineau and Winnipeg, where suicide amongst Aboriginal youth is no stranger to the community, protesters have echoed the demands made in Toronto, calling for commitments to real progress, not just temporary “band-aid” solutions.

The motives behind these suicide attempts are fuelled by the sentiment of despair and hopelessness caused by the living conditions on reserves, which include a lack of clean water and education as well as having almost no control over their own destiny. As in this case, the idea of suicide becomes contagious when someone sees their family member or friend escape their problems through suicide, and finds motivation to do the same. First Nations youth have suicide rates up to seven times higher than non-First Nations youth, while Inuit suicide rates are amongst the highest in the world, being 11 times higher than Canada’s national average.

In a population of around 2000, more than 100 suicide attempts have been made in Attawapiskat since September, ranging from 11 to 71 year-olds, showing that despair does not discriminate.

The treatment of Aboriginal people in Canada has long since been a major point of criticism for the Canadian government. Low employment opportunities truly rob Aboriginal youth of the possibility to dream of a bright future. While Prime Minister Trudeau has promised to make improvements, living conditions on reserves are still similar to those of war torn developing countries, which is truly shameful in our era. Although the protests in Toronto have ended, those in Winnipeg and Vancouver persist, and as protesters push through for change, we should all “Idle No More”.

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The Organization for World Peace