Statistical data on death by suicide by Nunavut Inuit, 1920 to 2014

Prepared by Jack Hicks
For Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.
September 2015


In public discourse in Nunavut on the painful subject of elevated rates of suicide in the territory, one hears a wide range of opinions on the question of ‘what was the suicide rate in our society before settlement in communities?’ Opinions range from ‘Inuit never killed themselves before the Qallunaat came’ to ‘Suicide is part of our culture’ (the suggestion being that historical Inuit society had a high rate of suicide).

Greater clarity about suicide behaviour in the past may be helpful because perceptions about the frequency and nature of suicide in historical Inuit society can impact on how people understand suicide behaviour today (i.e. whether suicide behavior today reflects traditional cultural norms). This report presents data from a variety of sources that may help clarify understanding about what we know and don’t know about the development of elevated rates of suicide in Nunavut in the last 100 years.

The 19th century

There is no accurate way to determine the rate of suicide by Inuit in the area what we know today as Nunavut before the 20th century.

The reports of early anthropologists such as Knud Rasmussen and Franz Boas are detailed and fascinating, but their observations are based on a handful of stories and cannot be relied upon to explain the entirety of what was happening across Inuit society at the time. The fact that Rasmussen recorded the suicides of three elderly persons during his first winter in the Canadian Arctic does not tell us what happened in other winters, or in other parts of Nunavut.

The Igloolik Oral History Project

The most comprehensive and detailed body of knowledge we have about Inuit life in the first half of the 20th century is the Igloolik Oral History Project (IOHP). 1

Several of the elders interviewed for the IOHP shared recollections and thoughts about suicide behaviour in the North Baffin.

Noah Piugaattuk told interviewers that suicide was “known to have happened now and then,”2 and George Agiaq Kappianaq said that suicide occurred in the past:
… once in a long while. … [T]here were cases when a person was ill for so long that they got tired of living which would get them to commit suicide as they were tired.3

Rosie Iqalliyuq commented:
When a woman got tired of being beaten she would just commit suicide, and people used to be scared of that happening.4

The sense one gets from reading these and other IOHP interviews is that while suicide was not unknown, neither was it a common occurrence. And when it occurred, it occurred for understandable reasons. While these are significant and valuable insights, the IOHP cannot support the calculation of a rate of suicide in the North Baffin.

Download Statistical data on death by suicide by Nunavut Inuit, 1920 to 2014

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