For many, having a chan­ce for a suc­cess­ful life means leaving the­ir homes and moving else­whe­re – for bet­ter edu­ca­tion and more job prospects

By Brian Giesbrecht

Senior Fel­low


Fron­tier Cen­tre for Public Policy

In com­mu­ni­ties across Cana­da – and else­whe­re in the world – young people are deter­mi­ned to esca­pe, even if it means com­mit­ting suici­de. It’s a cri­sis that can be avoided.

This sum­mer, CBC Radio repor­ted “yet ano­ther spa­te of suici­des” in Atta­wa­pi­skat, in nor­thern Onta­rio. The First Nation was brie­fly famo­us in 2012 when then-chief The­re­sa Spen­ce sta­ged a natio­nal­ly-tele­vi­sed hun­ger stri­ke. This is mere­ly the latest in a series of suici­des in Atta­wa­pi­skat, a com­mu­ni­ty with serio­us social problems.

Simi­lar­ly, last fall, seve­ral suici­de deaths took pla­ce in an Inu­it com­mu­ni­ty in Nuna­vut. Nor­thern Onta­rio, Mani­to­ba, Labra­dor and other iso­la­ted pla­ces have all suf­fe­red suici­de epi­de­mics among young people.

The­se kids are deter­mi­ned to get out of the­re, one way or the other.

Mean­whi­le, on the South Paci­fic island of Nauru, young people are dying of what is cal­led “resi­gna­tion syndrome.”

The island is used by Austra­lia to pro­ces­ses asy­lum seekers. The Austra­lian govern­ment – ful­ly awa­re that its coun­try can’t accom­mo­da­te a wave of hun­dreds of tho­usands of immi­grants – uses islands like Nauru to keep the num­ber of admis­sions manageable.

The result is a feeling of hope­les­sness and despa­ir among the asy­lum seekers. Many have been stuck on the island for years, with no end to the­ir mise­ry in sight. The youth see no hope and no reason to live. They stop eating or fin­ding any joy in life.

Cle­ar­ly, the young people on Nauru and tho­se com­mit­ting suici­de in iso­la­ted Cana­dian com­mu­ni­ties have some­thing in common.

Indi­ge­no­us ado­le­scents in iso­la­ted Cana­da com­mu­ni­ties live in a pro­spe­ro­us coun­try, but the­ir fami­lies don’t sha­re in that pro­spe­ri­ty. Too often, the­ir fami­lies are on welfa­re and the chil­dren lack pro­per role models to show them a more suc­cess­ful life­sty­le. The­ir tele­vi­sion and cel­l­pho­ne scre­ens reflect the afflu­en­ce of southern people, and the stars of pop cul­tu­re. But the­re is a sharp con­trast betwe­en that and what they see aro­und them: squ­alor, drun­ken­ness and violence.

So just like Nauru chil­dren left witho­ut an answer to the­ir fate, the­se Indi­ge­no­us ado­le­scents lose hope that chan­ge will occur.

Indi­ge­no­us and non-Indi­ge­no­us poli­ti­cal leaders say all the expec­ted things. Indi­ge­no­us poli­ti­cians express outra­ge and demand more money and pro­grams from the govern­ment. The govern­ment pro­mi­ses spen­ding on yet more cri­sis coun­sel­lors, alco­hol tre­at­ment faci­li­ties and a who­le host of addi­tio­nal fiscal interventions.

Others sug­gest that incre­asing cul­tu­ral awa­re­ness or teaching addi­tio­nal Indi­ge­no­us histo­ry les­sons would solve all the pro­blems and pre­vent futu­re suicides.

But all the­se people are pre­ten­ding and sin­king in lies – and they know it. They know that the solu­tions they offer will make no real dif­fe­ren­ce. The­se leaders and obse­rvers are pro­fi­cient in going thro­ugh the motions – they’ve done it many times befo­re and they’ll do it again.

In the inte­rim, chil­dren con­ti­nue to suf­fer. For too many of them, the lives they’re being told they must live lack meaning. They don’t want the hard life of sub­si­sten­ce hun­ting prac­ti­sed by the­ir ance­stors. They cer­ta­in­ly don’t want the lives they see the­ir parents living.

They want what they see on the­ir devi­ces’ screens.

Not all Indi­ge­no­us com­mu­ni­ties endu­re this pro­blem. Why do some pla­ces have high rates of suici­de whi­le others don’t?

A stu­dy by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nor­thern Bri­tish Colum­bia sug­ge­sts that in heal­thy com­mu­ni­ties with good role models – gain­ful­ly employ­ed, sober and respec­ted adults – the young people have no tro­uble fin­ding reasons to live. But in depen­dent, alco­ho­lic and vio­lent com­mu­ni­ties, too many chil­dren find only reasons to end the­ir lives.

Regar­dless of how bit­ter the reali­ty is, young people in unhe­al­thy Indi­ge­no­us com­mu­ni­ties must hear the truth abo­ut the­ir situation.

For many, having a chan­ce for a suc­cess­ful life means leaving the­ir homes and moving else­whe­re – for bet­ter edu­ca­tion and more job prospects.

If, howe­ver, they don’t want to leave, they sho­uld know what stay­ing enta­ils: lear­ning to beco­me self-sup­por­ting and ful­ly independent.

Becau­se rema­ining depen­dent in a sick and impo­ve­ri­shed com­mu­ni­ty leads only to suici­dal despair.

And then Nauru, Atta­wa­pi­skat and Nuna­vut will be left to watch more of the­ir chil­dren die.

Brian Gies­brecht is a reti­red jud­ge and a senior fel­low with the Fron­tier Cen­tre for Public Policy.

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