Plagued with a suicide epidemic, Nunavut is embarking on an "ambitious" plan to bring its suicide rate in line with - or lower than - the national average through a prevention strategy that is expected to be rolled out in June.
The territorial government and key stakeholders are hammering out details on how to make suicide the exception in a place where over the past 40 years, it has become a fact of life.
But the plan will involve the establishment of a suicide prevention office and an intervention training program that will "blanket the North," according to Norm Hatlevik, Nunavut's territorial director for mental health and wellness.
"It's an ambitious vision," said Natan Obed, director of social and cultural development with Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., a powerful Iqaluit-based organization that is also helping draft the plan.
"We want to create some optimism for the people of the territory that something positive is coming," he added.
A 27-page document titled Towards the Development of a Nunavut Suicide Prevention Strategy, which was based on unprecedented public consultations held throughout the territory last year and released last week, calls for more mental-health resources, which Mr. Hatlevik pledges are on the way.
Respondents said the clash between traditional Inuit and "Western" cultures as well as historic roots, such as the sad legacy of residential schools, have helped give Nunavut the dubious title as home to the highest suicide rate in the country.
The suicide rate is about 10 times the national average and the number of suicides among boys aged 15 to 19 is 40 times higher than in the rest of Canada. It's a trend that has developed over just a few decades: In the 1960s, suicide was nearly unheard of. Now, almost everyone in the territory has been touched by it.
A working group was formed to get a handle on the problem. Members include the territorial government, the RCMP, the Embrace Life Council and Nunavut Tunngavik, which advocates for indigenous people and oversees deals made under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement.
The group issued a report a year ago that called on the government to take a "more focused and active approach to suicide prevention." It also called for more residents to become "mental-health intervenors" as well as for stronger counselling and mental-health care services.
The more recent consultations with the public echoed those concerns, citing the shortage of mental-health counsellors.
"Concerns about counselling services focus not so much on their type or quality as on their availability," the report noted, "Nunavummiut [Nunavut people]would like to see more mental-health positions, and greater efforts to attract and retain staff for the existing positions. They also want mental-health centres - physical facilities to house programs and workers, to which people could resort when they feel overwhelmed."
Already, steps are being taken to equip residents with ways to cope.
LivingWorks Education Inc., a Calgary-based suicide intervention and prevention training company, which has offered its services to more than a dozen countries, is already teaching teachers and others all over the territory. Its Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training program includes how to spot signs of suicidal thinking, intervention skills and development of "safe plans," and it is being embraced by people in the North, said Richard Ramsay, president of LivingWorks.
"We intend to blanket the North with this training program," said Mr. Hatlevik.
Mr. Obed said the territory has been trying to tackle the problem for some time, but it hasn't been supported by everyone. Now, all the major players are on board and the public consultation report suggests ordinary residents may finally be, too.
"Hopefully, the strategy can be embraced by society as a whole," Mr. Obed said.