September 10 is World Suicide Prevention day. It’s relevant to shed light on the epidemic of suicide that is raging on in Nunavut.
In mid-May this year, Inuit NDP MP for Nunavut Mumilaaq Qaqqaq resigned her position in parliament, stating, “we are facing a suicide epidemic and this institution refuses to care.” Qaqqaq’s resignation brought to light for many what has been an ongoing epidemic for years. This is the legacy of capitalism in the north.
Highest rate in the world
With a suicide rate 10 times higher than the rest of Canada, Nunavut is facing a suicide epidemic. Since its creation as a territory in 1999, more than 600 people have died from suicide in Nunavut. This is in a place with a population of just 38,000. In 2019, a report showed that if Nunavut were an independent country, it would have the highest suicide rate in the world, and according to a 2020 study published in the International Journal of Research and Public Health these rates have increased “several-fold” over the last decades.
The suicide crisis disproportionately affects Indigenous communities, where the suicide rate is six times higher than that found among the rest of Canadians. Among the Inuit it is 24 times higher. Half of the total Inuit population in Nunavut are under the age of 25 and the highest rates of Indigenous suicide are among the youth and young adults.
But the suicide crisis in Indigenous communities in Canada is nothing new. In 2016, we wrote about the community of Attawapiskat, in northern Ontario, where a state of emergency was declared due to a staggering wave of suicides. This was primarily amongst the youth. The situation was so bad that the premier at the time declared a suicide crisis.
Conditions of life in Nunavut
None of this is surprising if we look at the conditions of life in the territory. Nunavut was founded out of the discussions between the federal government and Inuit peoples, to be an autonomous territory for Inuit people. But 22 years after its creation, living conditions have not improved and have only worsened. For example, 31.2 per cent of children under the age of 18 in Nunavut live beneath the poverty line, the highest percentage in any of the Canadian provinces and territories.
There is an overall lack of infrastructure, including transportation, education, and housing. In particular, the territory is in the midst of a housing crisis, but of a different kind from the rest of the country. As recently as 2020, 37 per cent of Nunavut homes were in need of serious repair, with problems ranging from maggots in the floors, to severe mold growth, which can lead to tuberculosis. Years-long waitlists for new housing units and for repairs lead to the overcrowding of rundown homes, which further perpetuates the crises in physical and mental health. It is reported that 39 per cent of Inuit people in Inuit Nunangat are forced to live in these crowded homes. It is estimated that 15 per cent of Nunavut’s population is waiting for public housing.
With the rate of unemployment among the Inuit working class at 28 per cent, the youth are left to feel hopeless about their future. Half of all people in the territory are living with food insecurity, meaning that even basic nutrition is beyond their reach.
Naturally, growing up and living in conditions like this would have a detrimental impact on one’s overall health. But in addition to their basic human needs being barely met, or not being met at all, the physical and psychological effects that stem from the situation are not being addressed. Access to a doctor is six times more limited in Nunavut than in the rest of Canada.
Root of the problem
The mental health crisis in Nunavut is not a modern development. Ultimately, it is the result of hundreds of years of colonization and genocide driven by capitalism’s need for land and people to exploit for profit. As resigned NDP MP Qaqqaq pointed out, the higher rate of suicide in Nunavut is a direct legacy of colonialism and residential schools. The inter-generational trauma resulting from the crimes of colonization takes a toll on mental health which creates a vicious cycle connected with poverty, substance abuse, and suicide.
This is compounded by the ongoing indifference from the politicians on Parliament Hill who always bend to the will of the capitalists rather than help the struggling people. The current situation is the inevitable outcome of centuries of oppression and exploitation of Indigenous people under Canadian capitalism. It comes as no shock that the same system that forces Indigenous people to live in these conditions, and is directly to blame for them, cannot provide the proper health and mental health resources to deal with the problems it has created.
The suicide epidemic has unfolded while mining in the region has generated over a billion dollars in revenue in 2019 alone. There is no reason why any First Nation or Inuit community should be forced to live under the deplorable conditions that now exist. There is more than enough wealth to give everyone a decent standard of living, but it is being pocketed by the Canadian capitalist class.
As another example, nothing has been done about the ongoing boil water advisory, while the Canadian government has gifted $364 million to mining companies since the beginning of 2021—on top of the billions of dollars in free money given to big businesses since the beginning of the pandemic.
The money that is being held in private hands could easily be used to solve the problems of Indigenous communities that are taking such a toll on people’s lives.
Fighting capitalism is suicide prevention
The suicide epidemic in Nunavut is just another example of the horror of capitalist society. While the rich are getting richer, life for millions of poor and oppressed people has become unbearable.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Canada is one of the richest countries in the world. There is $1.6 trillion of “dead money” lying in the vaults of the Canadian ruling class. All of this could easily be used to provide clean drinking water, inexpensive and fresh food, decent housing and mental health services for Indigenous peoples.
However, the Canadian state exists to defend capitalist property relations and the interests of the ruling class. This has been proven time and time again. We cannot rely on either the state or the capitalists to improve our lives. Only in a socialist society could we use the collective resources of humanity to solve the serious problems we face.
The main pillars of the economy need to be expropriated and put under democratic workers’ control so that the wealth generated can be put to use addressing the needs of the masses of workers and Indigenous people across the country.
The wealth that would be freed up by expropriating the natural resource and other industry could easily fund all the services and infrastructure necessary to address the mental health crisis as soon as possible. For many, suicide is a reasonable exit out of the misery of their daily lives. We need to build a society, and a world, worth living in. That world is a socialist world That is the real way to prevent suicide. Fighting capitalism is suicide prevention.