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Suicide within Canada's First Nations. Part 1

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bullet 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

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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.

Average 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.

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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: 

bullet 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).

bullet 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.

bullet 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.

bullet An extremely high overall rate of 80.2 has been found for 10 - 19 year-old Native males living on the northern coast of Labrador.

bullet The 1991 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 Aboriginal Peoples:

bullet 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:

bullet 60% of all Aboriginals who commit suicide are acutely intoxicated at the time. This compares to 24% during non-Aboriginal suicides.

bullet Native communities which have retained some of their historical traditions have lower suicide rates.

bullet 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. 

bullet 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 population. 1

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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

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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.

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This topic is continued in Part 2

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. Sadly, almost all of the hyperlinks are not active today.

  1. "Suicide in Canada," at:
  2. "Canadian task force on preventive health care: Prevention of suicide," at:
  3. "Statistical information" at a web site that has gone offline and whose URL has been picked up by a porn company.
  4. "Indian Health Service Trends, 1989-1991"
  5. Black Bear, "Life is a gift, we must nurture it..." at: the same web site as is mentioned above in Reference 3.
  6. Matthew Coon Come, "Brave words from a native leader," Toronto Star, 2001-FEB-3, Page A28 (Editorials and opinion page)
  7. 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:
  8. "CDC, Violence Surveillance Summary Series, No. 2. 1996," cited in: "Suicide in the United States," Center for Disease Control, at:
  9. Glen Coulthard, "Colonization, Indian policy, suicide and Aboriginal peoples," at:
  10. "Choosing Life: Special Report On Suicide Among Aboriginal People," Royal Commission on Aboriginal People., Ottawa: Canada Communication Group Publishing, 1995. Cited in Reference 9.
  11. Carol Goar, "Tackling the issue of teen suicide," The Toronto Star, 2004-FEB-11, Page A22.
  12. Marites Sison, "Program addresses high suicide rate in Canada's North," Anglican Journal, 2011-MAY-11, at:
  13. Louise Elliott, "Ontario native suicide rate one of highest in world, expert says," Canadian Press, 2000-NOV-27, at:
  14. "First Nations, Inuit and Métis: Suicide Prevention," Health Canada, 2006-MAR-06, at:
  15. Colin Samson, et al., "Canada's Tibet: the killing of the Innu," Survival International, at: This is a PDF file.
  16. "Acting On What We Know: Preventing Youth Suicide in First Nations." Health Canada, 2010-MAY-31, at:

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Copyright © 2001 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-MAR-2
Latest update: 2011-MAY-13
Author: B.A. Robinson

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