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Rebekah Williams was a young Inuit girl growing up high above the Arctic Circle when word spread across the tundra that a man in another community had killed himself.

"We still talk about this," said the 57-year-old former social worker and Nunavut MLA who now lives in Iqaluit, the territory's capital city. "Things like that just didn't happen. Our people didn't do this."

Less than 50 years later, Nunavut has, by far, the highest suicide rate in the country, sometimes reaching nine times the national average.

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Since the territory, which has a mainly Inuit population of 30,000, was created in 1999, 40 per cent of deaths investigated by the coroner's office were suicides. Many of the 222 suicide victims were young, Inuit and male.

Ms. Williams said there have been so many suicides that people are becoming "numb" to news someone else has killed themselves. Bodies are being found in school bathrooms, bedrooms and closets.

Ms. Williams, who grew up in Arctic Bay, a hamlet located on Baffin Island, has personally had five relatives take their own lives.

"When something happens, we now look at each other kind of blank," said Ms. Williams, who is helping with research being done on Nunavut's high suicide rates by the McGill Group for Suicide Studies. "Communities are struggling to understand what's happening."

However, Ms. Williams and many others in this sparsely populated territory have found few answers and little solace from the Nunavut government's recent and long-awaited effort to address the growing problem.

The government has released a 34-page document called Annirusuktugut: A Suicide Intervention and Prevention Plan, which contains several recommendations, including seeking more support and advice from elders and beefing up mental health services around the two-million-square-kilometre territory.

There is also a plan to open up a $1-million office this fall that will organize suicide research and programming for the territory. The office, which will initially hire three employees, will also study "best practices" in other jurisdictions such as Australia and Greenland, which have also battled high suicide rates.

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Nunavut's strategy admits that its "tragic trend doesn't appear to be waning" and cites "countless factors" such as substance abuse, unemployment and family violence for all the deaths.

Jack Hicks, an Iqaluit consultant and suicide expert, said the government's strategy is weak considering the magnitude of the problem.

"Imagine if Canada had a suicide rate like Nunavut's? But you don't see a sense of crisis here," he said. "They are in a serious state of denial."

Mr. Hicks, who is co-ordinating a suicide follow-back study in Nunavut for the McGill Group of Suicide Studies, said the territorial government first promised the strategy in 2004, and only got around to releasing it after an Iqaluit weekly newspaper began questioning where it was earlier this year.

"I don't think all suicides can be stopped, but I think as a society we can be doing a lot more than we are now," he said. "We are not talking about potholes here."

Pat Angnakak, a Nunavut bureaucrat who co-ordinated the suicide-prevention strategy, isn't surprised there are complaints about the speed and direction of the government's efforts.

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"I understand that, but at the same time you have to be what I'd call the parent. Sometimes a toddler really wants something but it might not be the best thing for her at that time," she said.

Ms. Angnakak said the government first needed to take stock of what's already being offered before it can move forward with any substantial policy initiatives.

Many Nunavut politicians, including Premier Paul Okalik and Speaker Peter Kilabuk, have lost relatives to suicide.

Qajaaq Ellsworth, a 29-year-old Inuit man living in Iqaluit, doesn't think it is fair to blame the government for failing to reduce the territory's rising suicide rate.

"Instead of pointing the finger at government or Christopher Columbus or whoever messed up our lives, we need to look at the day-to-day things we go through. We need to start talking about what's happening," said Mr. Ellsworth, who works with the National Inuit Youth Council co-ordinating a suicide-prevention project.

Mr. Ellsworth, who was 16 when his 13-year-old sister Missy killed herself, said many Inuit grow up feeling that they aren't important, and that prevalent mindset has to change before any progress will be made.

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"They grow up hearing over and over again how bad things are, how they live in crowded houses, how they all drop out of high school," he said. "Some people feel that the rest of the world or the rest of Canada, or even people within their own families, look at them as a waste."

He said that Inuit traditionally grew up more connected to the land and their communities. "If somebody got sick everybody knew, but now we live in cities like [Iqaluit]and I don't even know who lives in the house across from me."

Mr. Ellsworth said some of the more successful suicide-prevention tools are on-the-land programs where young Inuit are taught survival and hunting skills, usually by elders.

He said it's wrong that some of his "hunter buddies" who grew up on the land and supplying food for their families now "feel bad about themselves because they don't have a job."

Mr. Ellsworth said his organization is trying to give young Inuit "a voice" and a creative outlet by teaching them media and filmmaking skills.

Ms. Williams agreed with Mr. Ellsworth that many Inuit feel "useless." She said that if even there is real action taken on reducing suicide rates, it still could take at least 15 years to see results.

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"I think strongly that every suicide case in Nunavut, they didn't want to die. It was a way to get away from a situation," she said, adding that when problems reach a crisis, many feel trapped because there is often only one burned-out social worker in the community, and the only physical way out is by buying a $2,000 airline ticket.

"You need to be rich to get away from your problems," she said.

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