Pictured above: Cemetery overlooking the hamlet of Baker Lake, Nunavut.
By Dr. Renee Linklater Director, Aboriginal Engagement and Outreach for the Provincial System Support Program
Earlier this fall, I had the honour of being invited to speak at Atausiuqatigiingniq Inuusirmi (United for Life), a three-day gathering organized by the Nunavut Suicide Prevention Strategy partners in Baker Lake, Nunavut. It was my first time in Nunavut and it took a while to acclimatize to the temperature which hovered around zero in mid-September. Nonetheless, the land was breathtaking and the people were so kind and generous.
As I listened through my headset which provided an English translation for the opening, I was moved by unexplainable tears that even had me wondering where the connection was. I may have been touched by the strength of the old woman lighting the Qulliq as I heard someone behind me say “she is such an amazing hunter” or it could have been my Spirit connecting to the pain of loss felt across the territory. In the past three decades, there has been a steady increase in deaths by suicide in the region. Suicide rates among Inuit youth are the highest in the world, at 11 times the national average.
Like many people, I have been seeking to understand more about Inuit health and how to be a support as a provider in the health care system. Years ago I was meeting with colleagues at Mamisarvik, an Inuit Healing Centre in Ottawa. I shared my inquiry in that as First Nations people, we experienced similar impacts from colonization related to Canada’s assimilation legislation and policies, foreign diseases, residential schools, and child welfare, yet Inuit rates of suicide were nearly double ours – and so I wondered why. The explanation I received was that Canada had built their colonial strategy over hundreds of years of contact with First Nations peoples – yet for Inuit, contact occurred around 1950, when the strategy was already developed and “it’s like it came in like a lightning bolt, with a full force of colonial assault.” The intensity of the force was credited for the extensive impacts on Inuit.
Over the three days, I listened and learned. In many ways, I felt they were much further ahead of us, in the sense of having control of their lives as self-governing Indigenous peoples. The young people spoke Inuktitut and many were hunting in the early morning or over lunch break as caribou were migrating through the area. Our meals included fish, caribou, and dried muskox. I learned about culturally relevant land-based healing programs that had been developed and heard the testimony of the strength and persistence of leadership that is determined to inspire community wellness and see the implementation of the National Inuit Suicide Prevention Strategy.
On the last morning, I went for a brisk walk across the soft colourful tundra. The land was slightly frozen. Arctic hare were plentiful. The sunrise emerged from the far off distance reminding us that ancestors are present and children have yet to be born. As I continue along the journey I am mindful of struggle and perseverance – and most of all, that the sun will continue to rise and shed light on the path forward.