In Canada's aboriginal suicide crisis, lesson on protective power of culture

In Lac Seul, an aboriginal community not unlike those with shockingly high suicide rates, a concerted effort to restore traditions is credited with raising graduation rates rise and lowering drug abuse.

Frank Gunn/Reuters
In this December, 2011 file photo, a tattered Canadian flag flies over a teepee in Attawapiskat, Ontario, an aboriginal community that has seen one in every 15 residents attempt suicide since last fall.

In her Twitter profile, Reina Foster glows in the foreground of a sunset, which illuminates the feather in her hair and the three beaded flower patterns hanging from her braids. Her hair is tied in beige leather straps, as Ojibwe tribes have done for centuries.

Like most 17-year-olds, Ms. Foster posts on Instagram and makes YouTube videos. But she can also survive out on the land, by fashioning a bow and arrow to hunt. At her reserve in Lac Seul, in the far west of Ontario, elders have taught Foster some of their local language and ancient legends. Those stories have helped her through some tough times.

“I was placed into child care, and that sort of threw me off the road of life,” she says. “Now I am following the traditional path, and I’m involved with the culture, and I’m learning to forgive those who have hurt me in the past.”

Many remote, indigenous reserves across Canada exist in what the United Nations has called “third-world conditions,” with crowded schools and undrinkable tap water. But even those with ample infrastructure are reeling from an assimilationist system that stripped them of their language and way of life. The resulting trauma has given rise to a shocking suicide crisis — and according to some research, a roadmap to healing.

In the small James Bay town of Attawapiskat, Ontario, one in 15 people have attempted suicide since last fall in a community whose housing strains, drug use, and 70 percent unemployment sparked a countrywide protest movement five years ago. Laurence Kirmayer of McGill University in Montreal believes the town experienced a “suicide contagion,” where locals who share similar suffering were exposed to the idea of suicide, which also compounded their distress.

Psychologists have observed a similar phenomenon multiple times in Cross Lake, Manitoba, where six young people took their lives this winter in a town with no public spaces, and now 13 percent of all high-school students are on a suicide-watch list.

But located roughly between those two lies Lac Seul, a community with similar demographics that has seen graduation rates rise and drug abuse decline after a concerted effort to restore their traditions. For Foster, grounding young people in their past gives them the confidence to build their future. A national commission highlighted that connection two decades ago, and psychologists say identity is a proven bulwark for indigenous mental health.

“Everything in our culture is embedded in our roots,” Foster says. “And everything in our culture is connected.”

‘Trying to dull the pain’

The Canadian government took Clifford Bull from his parents in Lac Seul at age 7, placing him in a church-run “residential school.” It was part of an official government program to forcibly assimilate children into Western society. Some of Mr. Bull’s peers recall priests washing their mouths out with soap when they spoke their native language. Across Canada, 150,000 children went through these schools, which were notorious for physical and sexual abuse.

After six years, Bull dropped out. “When I came home, I didn't know my culture, I hardly knew my language,” says Bull, who struggled to reconnect with his family and became a teenage alcoholic. “A lot of my life was centered around trying to dull the pain of being abused and traumatized in residential school.”

As a young adult, Bull slowly got clean through a mix of Christian teachings and indigenous practices like sweat lodge, an hour-long meditation in a tree-branch hut that features a fire-tender pouring water over heated stones. Bull’s self-esteem rose as he learned the language and hunting skills his parents had intended to teach him.

“It gives you a sense of peace and understanding, just being out there and paddling a canoe, and seeing birds fly by. There's so much tranquility and serenity,” says Bull, who is now tribe chief for Lac Seul’s 800 residents. “A lot of communities have begun to look at the land as where the healing happens.”

Five years ago, a man who had been through a similar recovery as Bull felt inspired to build a log cabin out in the bush, for young people to spend time away from video games and social media. The tribe set up sessions for elders to pass on their teachings, sometimes with the help of a translator.

It became so popular that a second cabin was recently built for adults to use, from recovering addicts to families seeking a weekend holiday.

In 2014, a nearby tribe hosted a summer culture week, which included making canoes and drums, weaving baskets, and smoking moose meat. Lac Seul has continued the annual camp, and set up year-round activities like snowshoeing and under-ice traps.

At elementary school, students are taught about their tribe’s history alongside the general Canadian education. They also nail taps and buckets into birch trees to collect sap that is boiled into a traditional medicine for the community. Bull says it’s all about making young people have a connection to their ancestral land.

“We want to make sure they get off on the right foot and get a good start in life.”

Cultural continuity

University of Victoria psychology professor Christopher Lalonde has visited scores of remote indigenous communities across Canada while researching cultural continuity. He’s seen reserves with suicide rate that are eight times the Canadian average, as well as communities where suicide is virtually unknown.

“People think suicide happens because of things in the individual’s little life. But suicide is a phenomenon – not on an individual level, but in cultures and communities,” says Professor Lalonde.

While everyone struggles to construct their identity as teenagers, Lalonde says indigenous youth often grow up with histories and stories that never show indigenous, or Aboriginal, people in a positive light. On reserves with sparse connections to their identity, Lalonde documented higher rates of suicide, substance abuse, and teen pregnancy.

“They can only create their identity out of the things that they are surrounded by. If it's traditional things like language, elders, traditional food; you get conferred a strength of identity that gets lost if you're not surrounded by those things.”

Dr. Kirmayer, a Montreal doctor who leads McGill University's transcultural psychiatry division, notes that everyone forms their identity through language, religion, and ethnic groups. “For indigenous people, most of those things have been systematically attacked for a long time.”

Psychologists have repeatedly linked negative stereotypes with mental health, Kirmayer says. “You are being attacked at the very center of your identity, and you're potentially left with feelings of being less than other people. And you carry that around inside.”

Kirmayer says some tribes also counteract these feelings through “self-efficacy,” where they assert their rights to self-government and take greater responsibility for the community’s economic future. The communities break stereotypes of alcoholism and welfare payments by starting resource corporations and holding the government to account on centuries-old broken promises.

“Part of having a positive identity is not just valorizing history, but it's counteracting the very negative things that are circling in society,” he says, drawing an analogy with African-Americans who reaching back to their African roots and celebrate the cultures that slavery took from them. “There are structural problems and so on, but that’s one thing that very explicitly needs to be strengthened for indigenous people.”

Government urged to act 20 years ago

A 1996 official commission on indigenous people, launched after a decade of tense protests and mass suicides, found the same thing. The report urged governments to establish more political autonomy and funding for tribes, but stressed that progress would be limited without cultural revitalization.

“Spiritual healing and rediscovery are necessary so that Aboriginal youth can get a firm footing in their cultures and traditions. This will protect them from the alienation and hopelessness that lead to drug taking, lawlessness and suicidal behaviour,” the commission found.

Two decades later, after limited progress, Canada is facing a reckoning. Indigenous people are the fastest-growing segment of the population; in 2011, half were under the age of 24 — just like Lac Seul. Demographers say that means a plummeting number of elders, who hold the traditional teachings. “The range of youth is getting impossible for elders to manage,” Lalonde says.

This year, after a mass shooting at a Saskatchewan reserve and suicide spikes across remote Canadian towns, federal officials pledged to build community centers and send in mental-health nurses. Columnists suggested some reserves relocate closer to cities.

But Lalonde says inoculating youth from suicide requires a deeper perspective. “How can we help them construct a healthy sense of identity – something to hold firm and fast, not just in their teen identities but in their lives? That's not going to come from two health workers parachuted in from Ottawa. We act and react, but we don’t look long-term.”

A sense of belonging

Chris Lawson remembers a stressful start to his social-work career in 1999, with graffiti and broken windows surrounding Lac Seul. Suicides were commonplace, and many teens were alcoholics.

A decade ago, a new sports arena gave young people a place to hang out and be sober, but Lawson says only cultural programming made them thrive. They now learn their local traditions, and the history of their relations with the Canadian government. “You feel more of a sense of belonging; that this is where we should be,” Lawson says. “It’s important to be grounded.”

While the reserve’s programming is held back by a dwindling number of elders, Lawson says young people like Foster are helping to spread the traditions. “She's a model for our youth; to stay in school and stay positive but also to connect to your identity and culture,” he says. “It's hard, but it really needs to come from the community.”

While the local high school used to graduate up to three pupils a year, that number has jumped each year. This spring, 13 of the school’s 19 students graduated, including Foster, who starts culinary-management courses in Toronto this fall.

“With culture, there is healing,” she says. “There is reconciliation and revitalization.”

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