Nunavut acts on recommendations for suicide prevention

Nearly 40 years after losing his older brother to suicide, Nuna-vut’s health minister will lead

the territory’s suicide prevention efforts. Health Minister Paul Okalik, a former premier who led the territory after its creation in 1999, will chair a new cabi-net committee on quality of life, Pre-mier Peter Taptuna announced Oct. 22.

The move is in response to the Sept. 25 recommendations of an inquest into the high rate of suicide in Nunavut. Nearly 500 people have completed sui-cide since the territory was created, including children as young as 11.

“Today, we declare suicide as a cri-sis in Nunavut,” Taptuna told the legis-lature. “Overwhelmingly, Nunavum-miut are saying we need to do more at the senior government level, at the hamlet level, at the local level and at the family level. Previous lives should not be lost. We have heard the recom-mendations loud and clear.”

In addition to the health minister, the premier and ministers of housing, education and family services will sit on the committee. With the help of a new associate deputy minister, the committee will manage “new monies and a costing process to identify the needed funds” for new staff, training programs and other supports to imple-ment the recommendations of the inquest and Nunavut’s existing suicide prevention strategy and action plan.

The premier did not, however, announce a specific amount for the strategy or new programs to reduce the suicide rate in Nunavut, which is 9.8 times the national average. Instead, he indicated the money will come from existing budgets. The inquest, held Sept. 14–25 in Iqaluit, heard repeated testimony that the lack of dedicated dollars for the strategy’s action plan hampered its implementation.

The coroner’s jury recommended that Taptuna declare suicide a public health emergency — something the premier did not do, although that desig-nation could help trigger federal help. Among the jury’s other recommenda-tions was giving a specific individual the responsibility for the suicide pre-vention file, with dedicated resources and a secretariat to implement the sui-cide prevention strategy.

Taptuna’s announcement appeared to adopt the broad intent of many of the jury’s recommendations, if not all of the specifics. He committed to cross-governmental programs to reduce the risk factors that precipitate suicide, and to broadening the delivery of the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) program, which expert witnesses at the inquiry recom-mended as one of a suite of initiatives the territory should continue.

Taptuna also acknowledged that it is possible to prevent suicide, one of the first times a senior Inuit leader has done so. One of the critical factors in Que-bec’s ability to reduce its suicide rates, expert witness Brian Mishara testified at the inquest, was a change in societal attitudes that had previously accepted suicide as a normal and inevitable aspect of Quebec society.

Mishara, director of the Centre for Research and Intervention on Suicide and Euthanasia at the Université du Quebec à Montréal, urged Nunavut’s leadership to issue strong statements rejecting suicide as an acceptable way to deal with pain. Taptuna and Okalik’s statements suggest they took Mishara’s recommendation to heart.

“There is no single reason why someone may try to end their life, but in large part, this is preventable,” Tap-tuna told the legislature.

For his part, Okalik promised that he and “many of his colleagues” would take an ASIST workshop in November, a rec-ommendation another expert witness made at the inquest. “As members of this legislative assembly, we are each com-mitted to doing our part in prevention and reducing the stigma,” Okalik said.

Okalik was 13 when his older brother killed himself. It was not the former pre-mier’s only brush with suicide.

“I was traumatized,” he told the leg-islature. “Years later, as I contemplated suicide, it was my older sister Ida who saved me with her love.”

That experience has left Okalik hon-oured to assume the role of “Minister Responsible for Suicide Prevention,” he said. He urged his fellow Nunavum-miut to surround themselves with loved ones, spend time on the land learning traditional ways and challenge them-selves by getting an education.

“Believe in tomorrow,” added Okalik.

— Laura Eggertson, Ottawa, Ont.


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