Labrador suicide rates were 20 times higher for Inuit people and 14 times higher for Innu people compared to non-Indigenous rates in Newfoundland, says a new study covering almost two decades.
Dr. Michael Jong, president of the Canadian Society of Circumpolar Health, co-authored the paper published Thursday in the "American Journal of Public Health."
"I think it's important because we can better target our resources for the population with the greatest need," he said in an interview. "We need to know what kinds of intervention are most appropriate.
"It's young people who are dying."
The study draws on Statistics Canada reports over 17 years ending in 2009.
They show a suicide rate of 165 Inuit deaths per year for every 100,000 people and 114 for the Innu, compared to eight in Newfoundland.
The average age for Inuit and Innu deaths by suicide was 29, compared to 44 in Newfoundland.
Jong has worked for 35 years in Happy Valley-Goose Bay in Labrador as a family doctor.
"I'm really good, I feel, at talking someone out of suicide," he said. "But I feel that I'm kind of providing a Band-Aid …because they go back to their same old situation with the same problems."
Jong said long-term funding is needed to help Indigenous communities deal with the effects of relocation and residential schools – including addictions and trauma.
"It's colonization, loss of culture, loss of a sense of belonging."
Many former residential school students live with post traumatic stress disorder and have little or no ability to parent their own children, Jong added.
Provincial and federal officials need to support programs that reflect what the communities believe will work for them, he stressed.
Provincial Health Minister John Haggie said suicide in Labrador is recognized as "a major problem." Efforts to help have included improved intervention training for staff in aboriginal communities, he said in an interview.
"There's no one solution to this. We've tried to act on several levels as a government."
Three youth outreach workers are now on the job, Haggie said.
"But we also have a substance abuse issue as well and these two probably play into each other."
Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott said in a statement that the government is committed to closing gaps in health and mental wellness outcomes for indigenous Canadians.
"It will take all of us working together to improve these outcomes, and we are committed to working with the provinces, territories and indigenous leaders across the country to do so."
Michelle Kinney, deputy minister of health and social development for the Nunatsiavut Government, said it's time to get back to basics.
"We need to get back to the land and the connection to the land," she said in an interview.
"I know if you talk to youth, they'll say that they're tired of talking about it. Some people say we need to talk about suicide more and get it out there. They'll tell you that it's in their face, and that it's time to stop talking about it and do something. They want to see action."
Programs work best when they stem from ideas that come from within the communities themselves, Kinney said. Many ongoing efforts are focused on rebuilding relationships and trying to help troubled families while keeping them together.
"Building strength and resilience," Kinney said. "I think there's lots of ideas that we have about keeping our families together and building in supports, as opposed to removing children when there are issues.
"I think that we have the answers. We need to get the province and the federal government on board to work with us toward some of the solutions."