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Lifting the veil on native youth suicide Add to ...

About every 10 days, a young member of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, either in one of the region's many tiny isolated communities or in the bigger Northern Ontario towns where they often go to attend school or find work, takes his own life.

And the statistics recently released by NAN Grand Chief Stan Beardy - 298 confirmed suicides among under-25s in the period from 1986 to the end of October last year - may be just the tip of the iceberg.

According to Staff Sergeant Dan MacLeod, an OPP officer seconded to Nishnawbe Aski Police who last month used the NAN figures while briefing a group of Canadian Forces instructors at a suicide prevention course, there were a total of 425 confirmed suicides in all age groups through the same 24-year period.

In fact, for the past decade, the chief said the band has had an average of 30 youth suicides a year, so the rate has increased.

But, to the end of 2004, there were an additional 4,000 reported suicide attempts.

That was the last time he looked at the number of attempts, Staff-Sgt. MacLeod told a group of instructors with the Canadian Rangers, army reservists with a majority of First Nations, Inuit and Metis members who work and patrol in the country's sprawling northern regions.

The Rangers got involved, Sergeant Peter Moon told The Globe and Mail, because in the past year, instructors recognized that two of their own - they were Junior Canadian Rangers, the group for 12-18 year-olds - were suicidal and were able to save them.

"We feel we have a duty of care to the Rangers and Junior Rangers and to our communities," Sgt. Moon said.

The Rangers then approached Staff-Sgt. MacLeod, and last month the 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, based in CFB Borden near Barrie, Ont., sent six instructors to the suicide prevention course held in Dorset.

"We're not social workers," Sgt. Moon said. "But we want to know how to help … and [Staff-Sgt.]MacLeod has given us the basis to do that."

Ranger instructors often come upon disclosures of suicide in their ordinary work. For instance, Sgt. Moon said, the Rangers offer new Junior Rangers a course on how to avoid physical and sexual abuse, rampant in many northern communities, and often the youngsters will divulge that they have been victimized - or that suicide is something in the back of their minds.

Now, thanks to St.-Sgt. MacLeod's course, they'll be better equipped to help.

While the Rangers are perhaps best-known for the sovereignty patrols they conduct in Nunavut - there are 4,200 Rangers working in 160 remote communities across the Canadian north - in Ontario the organization's mandate is to provide domestic response to crises that range from rescuing injured trappers to evacuating communities from flood zones or recovering bodies.

Resources in NAN's tiny far-flung communities, many of them reachable only by aircraft, are extremely limited - there may be just a mental health professional on call, a local nursing station and one or two police officers - so there is a real need for more trained eyes.

In a phone interview from his Sioux Lookout home Monday, Staff-Sgt. MacLeod said he believes the 4,000 reported attempts - which came from NAN's 2004 manual on suicide - is "substantially higher" now.

The statistics and Staff-Sgt. MacLeod's remarks were first reported in the Dec. 21 Northern Voice, a publication of the weekly Timmins Times, and in the intervening days have received no further media notice. The story was written by Sgt. Moon, public affairs Ranger for 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, who attended the suicide workshop.

Sgt. Moon is a former long-time investigative reporter with The Globe.

Staff-Sgt. MacLeod has been seconded to the Nishnawbe Aski Police for four years, and before that, was part of the OPP's now disbanded Northwest Patrol unit, which often flew into remote communities to investigate suicides.

But in 2001 came a turning point for him - the suicide of a 14-year-old girl, who hanged herself, and the suicide within a month of her mother. He wanted to be more involved with suicide prevention, as opposed to merely reacting to it.

Conservatively, the suicide rate for people aged 10 to 24 among NAN's population is estimated to be more than four times the national average.

But with the total NAN population only an estimated 46,000 - spread out over 49 communities, the largest of which has a population of about 2,200, the smallest with fewer than 20 people - Grand Chief Beardy told The Globe that on a per capita basis, the suicide rate among NAN youth is likely 10 times the national rate.

"Just about every year for the last decade," he said, "we've lost one youth every 10 days."

He said the most obvious culprit, what he called "the greatest evil in all this", are the devastating after-effects of the federal government's residential schools policy, which saw seven successive generations of Aboriginal youngsters removed from their families and communities and institutionalized, the purported goal being their assimilation.

Grand Chief Beardy estimates that as much as half of NAN's population spent time in one of Ontario's schools - his older siblings went, for instance, though he didn't - with the other half being affected indirectly through the collective loss of parenting and relationship skills.

"When one grows up in an institution," he told The Globe, "you don't learn about normal interactions and human relationships."

He said that among survivors, "you never hear about affection, you never see them showing affection, and you probably know that children need constant reminders that they're important, that someone cares. I never hear that from residential school survivors."

The publicizing of the suicide statistics, which NAN helped Statistics Canada gather, is part of what Grand Chief Beardy calls the organization's move toward greater transparency, as well as to create more awareness of how serious a problem suicide is for his people.

Of the 425 confirmed suicides, 57 were aged 10 to 14, 174 aged 15-20, and 67 were 21 to 25, with male victims outnumbering females by two to one.

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