Community and Culture – The Key to Stabilizing the Suicide Crisis

by Lee Rivers 

Suicide rates among First Nations are six to eleven times the Canadian average, and since the creation of Nunavut in1999, suicide has accounted for more than one in four deaths in the Northern Territory. In the recent Attawapiskat suicide crisis more than 100 of 2,000 members of the remote community have attempted suicide in the last several months, including 28 in March, prompting Chief Bruce Shisheesh to declare a state of emergency.

Regional, provincial and federal governments sent support and crisis workers to the community in response, but as things calmed down, several workers left.

Attawapiskat is very isolated and access is limited to air travel for most of the year and an ice road for a couple months in winter. This results in many citizens never leaving. Overcrowding is rampant and homes are run down, and at $22 for a12-pack of pop cost of living is extremely high.


Map of James Bay showing Attawapiskat

Map of James Bay showing Attawapiskat – Wikimedia

However, these conditions are not unique to Attawapiskat, many reserves share similar socio-economic situations as well as high levels of suicide.  Bill Yoachim, a member of the Snuneymuxw First Nation on Vancouver Island and executive director of Kwumut Lelum Child and Family Services explains in an interview with CBC that his community once experienced the same issues. “Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed one too many suicides in my backyard as well.” he told the CBC. “It’s scarring. It’s very painful…. You carry it for your whole life. You carry it every day, sometimes every hour,” he says.

Snuneymuxw First Nation is very different from Attawapiskat. It is urban, located within the city boundaries of Nanaimo, B.C, but like many First Nations, Yoachim’s community experienced clusters of suicides. In addition to his mother, he lost many cousins and says it was devastating not only to families but the entire community.

Snuneymuxw has been suicide-free for five years now. Yoachim credits the significant change to a determination to include youth in reviving traditional Snuneymuxw culture and to offer athletic programs to youth. “Connecting the community and culture is our main template… and we’re having some positive results.” He told the CBC.


A Chipewyan woman and child set out to hunt muskrat in Garson Lake, western Saskatchewan.

A Chipewyan woman and child set out to hunt muskrat in Garson Lake, western Saskatchewan. – Wikimedia

Health experts are agreeing with Yoachim’s explanation of culture and community being a more important factor than housing, employment or finances. In a recent interview with The World Post, Dr. Rod McCormick, an indigenous mental health expert based in British Columbia’s Shuswap reserve and professor of Aboriginal Child and Maternal Health at Thompson Rivers University, explained some of the reasons why suicide rates may be high, “Young people may not feel like they belong anywhere or that they’re contributing to the community. They might not be connected to the culture or spirituality, and their only real connection is to their peer group. If their peer group is obsessed with death and dying, then to belong to that group they have to be immersed in that culture of suicide.” He continues, “There isn’t the possibility of going to movie theaters or driving fancy cars, or those things kids see on TV. There’s the living conditions of feeling like a second-class citizen when one watches TV and sees what other people have that they don’t. In addition, most isolated reserves have very few facilities. There really is next to nothing for mental health services. “

One doesn’t have to look far to see this sentiment echoed. In a widely shared Facebook post, a 13-year-old Attawapiskat youth, Amy Hookimaw, wrote “I didn’t know that people cared about me. But people do care,” after she was taken to the local hospital for experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Healthy community, healthy people

Research by University of Victoria psychologist Christopher Lalonde, also shows the key to tackling suicides is a community-based approach rooted in indigenous culture and values.

One of Lalonde’s most surprising revelations is that suicide rates aren’t actually linked to the “usual constellation” of socio-economic and psychological risk factors that plague many First Nations such as high unemployment, low education levels or inadequate housing, he told to the CBC. Instead, Lalonde’s research suggests, communities with epidemically high suicide rates tend to have one major thing in common: They’re the least “culturally healthy.”

“What we found is when communities have a sense of their collective past and have the tools and resources to navigate toward their future, those are the places that support youth health and well-being better than others.”, he explained to the CBC.

Lalonde has monitored youth suicide rates in 196 First Nations in British Columbia for 21 years, and is now working with First Nations in Manitoba.

His findings show suicide is not a universal epidemic amongst First Nations. Rather, a tiny fraction of communities seem to have the heaviest risk. Amongst First Nations in B.C., more than 90 per cent of suicides occur in only about 10 per cent of communities.

“The solutions to youth suicide in Attawapiskat or any other community are not going to come from Ottawa,” he says. “They’re going to come from communities taking ownership.”

This truth is reflected not only in First Nations communities but in tribes and communities around the world. Scientists have coined the term ‘Blue Areas’ where they have discovered the healthiest and consistently oldest living humans. These areas have the highest population of centurions on Earth.

Found in places such as Panama, Costa Rica, Ecuador and an ancient island off of Italy called Sardinia, these communities all share several things in common. Along with a diet in healthy fats, vegetables, low in meat, and an active lifestyle, the most common characteristics of these healthful people are their low stress levels and deep connection to their communities. They maintain a sense of purpose and participate in cultural, spiritual and communal activities daily. They also found many other communities that share a similar lifestyle, but do not have such a healthy population, and it is believed this was due to the missing “ strong family and community” link.

Changing The Tides

Examining what the Snuneymuxw community did to drastically lower rates of suicide is helpful in the pursuit of change. One obvious addition can be seen Nanaimo’s Departure Bay, where young Snuneymuxw men and women can be seen pulling 11-person canoes.

According to CBC, Mike Wyse leads the Island Brave crew, men all under age 20 who practise every day and compete as a team in indigenous canoe gatherings across British Columbia and the US. Wyse revived the youth paddling program at Snuneymuxw a decade ago, after his mother urged him not to let the sacred tradition of paddling fade. “Canoeing has given our young people an alternative to look to a better life,”  he told CBC.

Wyse credits the lessons the youth learn on the water to be part of what helps them to gain employment or pursue higher education. “You never get on a canoe when you’re angry or upset. That’s one of our strong teachings that are passed down from older people. Canoe ain’t gonna react the way you want it to,” Wyse says. Canoe clubs aren’t the only healthy option for Snuneymuxw youth: basketball, lacrosse and soccer programs are also popular. The community is planning the grand opening of its new gym next month, a $4-million recreational facility that Snuneymuxw First Nation built mostly with its own revenue. “We need to create space, whether through sport or culture or recreation, to make people feel alive,” Yoachim says.

While there are several Aboriginal Support and Crisis Intervention Response Teams in British Columbia, whom Yoachim praise for their continued help, the best method is prevention. “The communities know their own people. They know their own culture,” explains Emmy Manson, the mental wellness advisor for the Vancouver Island region of B.C’s First Nation Health Authority, “The capacity is in communities. They’re able to provide follow-up support, and they’re able to create a relationship of trust and safety for people who are really vulnerable.”

The Ontario government has pledged $2 million over the next two years for health support and a youth centre for the Attawapiskat community. But Manson reminds, this support must go into sustainable skill-sharing and building stronger communal programs, “Our communities are building a foundation of our own skilled people. It has to be our own people who bring us out of the darkness.