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Officials raise alarm after spate of suicides in northern Quebec region of Nunavik


MONTREAL — A spate of suicides in northern Quebec Inuit communities has the local school board sounding the alarm about what one official describes as a "deep and ongoing crisis."

"It is an emergency," said Harriet Keleutak, the director general of the Kativik school board, which serves Quebec's Nunavik region. "We are talking about a public-health crisis, and our students are deeply affected."

Keleutak said in a phone interview that two students in Kativik schools have died by suicide since the beginning of the school year in mid-August, and she knows of another three youths who have taken their own lives in the past month.

"The population of Nunavik is small, and families are large, and they live in different communities," Keleutak said. "When there's a suicide in any village, it impacts all the youths of the community, and it has a ripple effect in other communities."

Last week, Robert Watt, president of the Kativik council of school commissioners, addressed the matter in a letter to government officials.

"Over the past four weeks, our communities have dealt with youth suicides that directly affected students, families and staff in Nunavik," Watt wrote. "One of the victims was as young as 11 years old. We feel the situation requires urgent collective action at the regional level."

A report last week in Nunatsiaq News noted that one community of about 1,800 residents — the village of Puvirnituq on Hudson Bay — has had 10 suicides since Jan 1. That matches the annual average number of suicides for the entire region of 12,000 residents. Even before the recent wave, Nunavik's suicide rate was about 10 times the Quebec average.

The Quebec coroner's office said Tuesday the deaths in Puvirnituq are still under investigation. Reports can take between six months to one year to complete.

On a Facebook page dedicated to Nunavik issues, residents have been discussing the tragic loss of life.

"Too much suicide in Nunavik!! We need help!!" one woman wrote. 

In his letter, Watt said Nunavik's situation is similar to that in 2015 and 2016 in northern Manitoba and Ontario communities, which declared states of emergency after a wave of suicide among Indigenous youth received extensive media attention.

Watt said the school board has worked closely with the Nunavik health board to hire support and counselling services.

"Two years have now passed and the situation is not improving," Watt lamented. "As frontline workers in education, our staff witness daily a broad spectrum of issues related to the well-being of children."

Local officials are meeting in Kuujjuaq at the end of the month to discuss the crisis, and Keleutak said she wants federal and provincial officials to attend.

"The services that they offer rarely conform to our reality," she said. "We want them to be present so that they know what kind of situation we're in."

The question of suicides in Nunavik came to light in August during hearings of Quebec's Viens Commission, created in 2016 to study the treatment of Indigenous people by police, youth protection officials, the public health department and the justice and correctional systems.

Viens commission counsel questioned why the coroner had never conducted a public inquiry into the high number of suicides among Quebec Inuit. The province's chief coroner agreed it was a reality that merits further analysis.

On Tuesday, Joannie Lambert-Roy, a spokeswoman for the coroner's office, said it is committed to forming a group to  seek ways to prevent Indigenous deaths.

"A coroner's inquest is not necessarily the only option or the best option," Lambert-Roy said.

Watt said the situation shows the importance of addressing the underlying causes of depression, anxiety, and trauma affecting local youth.

"Nunavik as a whole is currently experiencing a deep and on-going crisis," he wrote, adding that "frontline workers have to cope with inadequate levels of services and resources."

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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