Ottawa is committing $9-million to support the implementation of Canada’s first national Inuit suicide-prevention strategy – a plan that seeks to stem deaths among a population whose suicide rate is as much as 25 times higher than the country’s as a whole.

At a joint announcement on Wednesday with federal Health Minister Jane Philpott, the organization representing Canada’s 60,000 Inuit released a 48-page strategy document that provides regional and national policy guidance and outlines the historical and modern social ills that underpin what it calls a public health crisis. The plan created by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) emphasizes the need to ensure access to trauma-focused, Inuit-specific mental-health services and to improve living conditions across Canada’s four Inuit regions, known collectively as Inuit Nunangat.

“It is time for Canada to give suicide prevention in Inuit Nunangat the action and attention it deserves,” the document says. “It is difficult to imagine how the country would not be galvanized to action if a town in Southern Canada with a population similar in size to Inuit Nunangat was struggling with comparable rates of suicide.”

The rate varies from one Inuit region to the next, but it is consistently far higher than the national rate. For 2009-13, the rate for the hardest-hit region of Nunatsiavut, in northern Labrador, was 275 suicides for every 100,000 people. That is compared with 11 every 100,000 for the country over all.

“First and foremost, the National Inuit Suicide Prevention Strategy wishes to create a common, united narrative about why suicide affects Inuit the way it does, and [lay out] what Inuit want to do to prevent suicides moving forward,” ITK president Natan Obed told The Globe and Mail in an interview before the announcement. “Up until now, we’ve had pockets of amazing work that have happened across Inuit Nunangat, but we haven’t had a national approach.”

The Liberals promised to rebuild the relationship with Canada’s Inuit, Métis and First Nations people, in part by working to improve their lives. The $9-million announced on Wednesday in the northern Quebec region of Nunavik will go toward enhancing Inuit-specific mental health services, providing training resources for early childhood development programs and supporting a fund for Inuit-led suicide-prevention projects.

“I want to strongly reaffirm our government’s role as a partner on this journey,” Ms. Philpott said in at the event. “Restoring our relationship with Inuit – based on the recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership – is key to our goal of improving health and mental wellness.”

Mr. Obed, who has lost close relatives to suicide, said Inuit need their own national suicide-prevention strategy because the community has a distinct language, culture and history, and because it has a different relationship with the federal government than, for example, First Nations people. Inuit do not fall under the Indian Act, or live on reserves. The document notes that after the Second World War, Inuit were forced to relocate from their seasonal camps and their way of life was undermined when police officers culled Inuit sled dogs. Like other members of the indigenous community, it pointed out, Inuit also suffered abuse at church-run, government-funded residential schools.

Since ITK is an advocacy organization and does not run front-line social programs, its strategy hinges on promoting collaboration and on providing policy guidance at the regional and national levels. The plan identifies six priority areas: creating social equity, including by improving housing and education opportunities; promoting Inuit culture and incorporating it into mental-health programming; nurturing healthy Inuit children from birth; ensuring access to health services; healing unresolved trauma and grief; and supporting Inuit-led efforts to reduce stigma and promote resilience.

“This is probably the most sophisticated suicide-prevention strategy prepared by an indigenous group, anywhere,” said Jack Hicks, a University of Saskatchewan adjunct professor of community health and epidemiology, who contributed to ITK’s report.

Mr. Hicks, a former suicide-prevention adviser to the Nunavut government, said that while the World Health Organization calls on all countries to implement national suicide-prevention strategies, Canada is one of the few developed countries that has not done so.

The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Jul. 27, 2016 6:19PM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Jul. 27, 2016 9:38PM EDT