Suicide within Canada's First Nations. Part 1
The "profile of mental disorders among Aboriginal people is primarily a
by-product of our colonial past with its layered assaults on Aboriginal
cultures and personal identities." Royal
Commission on Aboriginal People 10
Canadian suicide data:
Canada's overall suicide rate is typically about 14 per 100,000 people; the U.S. rate is
consistently slightly lower, at about 12 per 100,000. 1 These values
are heavily influenced by the economy: they drop as economic conditions improve,
and rise during recessions. Females are more likely to attempt suicide than
males. However, males are
about four times as likely to successfully commit suicide than females. This is because males typically use more reliable methods.
figures hide the existence of certain population groups which are at extremely
high risk for suicide: including prison inmates, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender persons, transsexuals, persons with certain mental health
problems, and Natives.
Government activities during the 1990s:
The Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care organized a
task force to study the prevention of suicide in Canada. 2 In their 1994-MAR report, they
mentioned the high suicide rate among Aboriginals in Canada. They stated that:
||Suicide rates in the Canadian Native population are more
than twice the sex-specific rates, and three times the age-specific rates of
non-Native Canadians (56.3 per year per 100,000 persons for Native males and 11.8 for Native Females).
||Among Aboriginal males, the rate for the 15-24 year age group was 90.0.
This is more than double that for all Aboriginal males: 39.0.
||Suicide among northern Native youth has reached epidemic proportions. In Alberta
the rate in the northern region was 80;
in the central region, 71.2,
and in the southern area, 35.3.
An extremely high overall rate of 80.2
has been found for 10 - 19 year-old Native males living on the northern coast of
Aboriginal Peoples Survey indicated that 41%
of Inuit, and 34.5% of Native Indians on reserves, report that suicide is a
problem in their community.
The task force made seven specific recommendations to reduce suicide rates.
However, none were specifically targeted to the native communities.
According to the report issued in 1995 by the Royal Commission on
The rate of suicide among Native youth is five to six times higher than
the Canadian average. 9,10
Facts cited in an essay by Glen Coulthard of the University of Alberta indicate:
||60% of all Aboriginals who commit suicide are acutely intoxicated at the
time. This compares to 24% during non-Aboriginal suicides.
||Native communities which have retained some of their historical traditions
have lower suicide rates.
Communities which have less seriously affected by the government's
paternal goals of "protection, civilized and assimilation"
and remained partly isolated from the government's acculturation processes
tend to have lower suicide rates.
The Native suicide rate may be much worse than the statistics indicate,
because they typically do not include non-status Indians, Métis and Natives
living off the reservation. 9
In contrast, one source indicates that: "Not all Native groups have high rates of suicide. Many
Native communities have suicide rates equal to or lower than the general
Comparable U.S. data:
The suicide rates among Natives in the U.S. shows a similar increase over the
national average. In 1989-1991, the Indian and Alaskan Native suicide rate was
37.5 per 100,000 vs 13.2 for all Americans. 3,4 There was a
disproportionate number of suicides among young male Native Americans during
this period, as males 15-24 accounted for 64% of all suicides by Natives. 8
Why is the Native suicide rate so high?
Glen Coulthard of the University of Alberta wrote a paper
during the 1990s that examined the reasons why the suicide rates among Canada's natives are so
elevated relative to the rest of the population. 9 He assigns
responsibility to the Canadian government's historical and profoundly defective
policies towards Natives. Some contributing factors are:
Socio-economic: Poverty is common in Native
communities. Living conditions are often crowded. Water and sewer
facilities are often inadequate. "...45% of all status Indians
living on reserve are illiterate." Coulthard makes a case that
present-day economic hardship has its roots in a failed government policy
which was aimed at assimilating Natives into the rest of society. The
historical Native tribal society was to be dismantled; its subsistence-based
economy was to be replaced by agriculture. But restrictions
applied by the government guaranteed that the policy failed, leaving
Native communities without a method of supporting themselves.
Psycho-biological: Although data indicates that Natives
appear to be
mentally more healthy than other Canadians, the reverse is probably true.
Since few community mental health services are
available in Native communities, problems are probably drastically underreported. The Royal Commission reported that the
"profile of mental disorders among Aboriginal people is primarily a
by-product of our colonial past with its layered assaults on Aboriginal
cultures and personal identities." 10 The
governments' traditional assumption that Natives are inferior, uncivilized,
and lacking in moral qualities, relative to European society, has been
internalized by many Natives. This leads to clinical depression,
anxiety disorders, and self-destructive tendencies, including suicide.
Culture stress: The Canadian government's policies
included the destruction of much of Native culture, values and religion.
With the help of the Christian churches, these traditions were largely
replaced with a European version of Christianity. The main players were the Roman Catholic Church,
Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada. Many native
children grow up with little knowledge of their original culture. The
government financed religious institutions so that they could establish
residential school systems. Sometimes, children were kidnapped and taken
long distances from their communities. In school, they were isolated from
their families or origin and forcibly stripped of their language, religion,
traditions and culture. Not mentioned in Coulthard's essay was the extremely
high level of physical and sexual abuse suffered by Native children at the
religious schools. The result is often, depression, difficulty in
effectively parenting future generations, loss of culture -- and suicide.
This topic is continued in Part 2
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. Sadly, almost all of the hyperlinks are not active today.
"Suicide in Canada," at: http://www.sarnia.com/groups/suicideprevention/
"Canadian task force on preventive health care: Prevention of
suicide," at: http://www.ctfphc.org/
"Statistical information" at a web site that has gone offline
and whose URL has been picked up by a porn company.
"Indian Health Service Trends, 1989-1991"
Black Bear, "Life is a gift, we must nurture it..." at:
the same web site as is mentioned above in Reference 3.
Matthew Coon Come, "Brave words from a native leader,"
Toronto Star, 2001-FEB-3, Page A28 (Editorials and opinion page)
Za-geh-do-win Information Clearinghouse. Provides information to any resident of
Ontario, Canada who requires info on issues relating to aboriginal people. They have a list of
materials on suicide at:
"CDC, Violence Surveillance Summary Series, No. 2. 1996," cited
in: "Suicide in the United States," Center for Disease Control, at:
Glen Coulthard, "Colonization, Indian policy, suicide and Aboriginal
"Choosing Life: Special Report On Suicide Among Aboriginal People," Royal
Commission on Aboriginal People., Ottawa: Canada Communication Group Publishing, 1995.
Cited in Reference 9.
- Carol Goar, "Tackling the issue of teen suicide," The Toronto Star,
2004-FEB-11, Page A22.
Marites Sison, "Program addresses high suicide rate in Canada's North," Anglican Journal, 2011-MAY-11, at: http://www.anglicanjournal.com/
Louise Elliott, "Ontario native suicide rate one of highest in world, expert says," Canadian Press, 2000-NOV-27, at: http://www.hartford-hwp.com/
"First Nations, Inuit and Métis: Suicide Prevention," Health Canada, 2006-MAR-06, at: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/
Colin Samson, et al., "Canada's Tibet: the killing of the Innu," Survival International, at: http://assets.survivalinternational.org/ This is a PDF file.
"Acting On What We Know: Preventing Youth Suicide in First Nations." Health Canada, 2010-MAY-31, at: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/
Copyright © 2001 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2001-MAR-2
Latest update: 2011-MAY-13
Author: B.A. Robinson