The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The dark underbelly

Living in what is still considered by the United Nations among the countries with the highest quality of life in the world, blinded by our idealised vision of ourselves: we may not wish to consider too closely the asterisk following those numbers.

Perhaps everything embodied in that asterisk is best embodied in a suicide rate of 12.9 out of 100,000, or about two percent of annual deaths, 80% of them male. That it dropped from the 1981 level of 14.0 is not particularly praiseworthy if one considers that the current rate is still higher than that of the United States, Great Britain, Mexico, and just about every other western country -- and even less so when taking into account that the rate among teenagers (since 1960) tripled among girls and more than quadrupled among boys: making suicide the second highest cause of death among youth aged 10-24. (The rate among men is six times that of women.) In a survey of 15,000 grade 7 to 12 students in British Columbia, 34% knew of someone who had attempted or died by suicide; 16% had seriously considered suicide; 14% had made a suicide plan; 7% had made an attempt and 2% had required medical attention due to an attempt. Some forty of these suicides, per year, will have been committed by boys and girls under the age of 15. Once such suicides were rare. No longer.

graph

I do note that this shift and sharp increase in teen suicide after the Great Depression (when suicide was much more common among older demographics) exists not only in Canada, but in every other western country.

The suicide rate among Native youth is five times that of the total Canadian population. Among the provinces and territories, Nunavut, followed by the Yukon and Québec, all with relatively large Native populations, have by far the highest rates of youth suicide: proportionately ahead of three of the top-ranking countries in the world for suicide. Per 100,000:

CountryMenWomen
Nunavik, Québec18231.1
Nunavut9833
Lithuania73.713.7
Russia72.913.7
Estonia64.314.1
Yukon346.5


Why?

No one, yet, has been able to do more than correlate (not in and of itself identifying cause): but the correlations are shocking. Natives also make up about 30% of Canada's prison population: far out of proportion to their demographic ratio. Many Native communities have an unemployment rate of as high as 80%. Adequate housing is in perpetual shortage: there are places in the mid-Arctic where five families share a single house, which is as likely to be without electricity and running water as not. Of all the "boil water" advisories currently active, most affect Native communities. Delays and lack of access even to the rationed health care most Canadians take for granted are commonplace: where else in Canada is it the norm and not the exception to be completely out of touch with basic obstetrical care during a pregnancy?

And yet there is an increasingly common groundswell of belief that "we have done enough for the Natives": amidst an economic pressure mirage, these "unnecessary" outlays should be among the first to be cut.

I don't think throwing more money at the "problem" is the answer. Money, in and of itself, is not going to solve the sheer hopelessness that reverberates through these numbers. What we are seeing in our Native communities, up to and including the high percentages of lifestyle illnesses such as diabetes II, is precisely the same pattern as can be traced third-generation in just about every post-colonial country. Money may pave the way -- potentially -- to a fully-paid university degree: but the obstacles in getting to the university in the first place are not monetary ... nor am I convinced that university education, in this context, helps anyone but the singular individual. Understand: I don't suggest we sacrifice the gifted individual to the community; but as things stand, educational selection serves only to isolate and remove such gifted individuals from their community. The net effect is no different than that of the residential schools of the 1950s and 60s.

One solution which does suggest itself at this point: a cooperative venture between government and Native community to establish fully longitudinal local educational structures and perhaps campuses of existing universities within the Native community: but such that there is cross-pollination -- travel in both directions; students going and coming. What I seek, in this proposal, is to allow gifted students to fulfill their full potential without severing them from the community.

In parallel, invest whatever funds are needed to initially bring the living conditions in each and every Native community up to an acceptable Canadian standard: and if there is no existing infrastructure to maintain them thereafter, create one (again, as a cooperative venture). How can we demand hope of those who cannot but compare, and who see only endemic inadequacy leading toward the inevitable dead end?

More than this is needed in an economics-based world: but these two together may at least prove a start ... and it is possible that with this start, a solid foundation may finally have been grounded upon which more can grow.

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