Recent researches show that the rate of suicide among the First Nations young people is increasingly frightening, more so among Aboriginal people of North Ontario region of Canada.
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Estimates show that the rate of suicide among Aboriginal is 2-3 times higher as compared to that of non-Aboriginals of Canada (Health Canada, 2003) and when the overall youth population is analyzed, estimates show that Aboriginal youth suicide rate is 5-6 times higher than that of non-Aboriginal youth (Health Canada, 2003).
Numerous factors have been cited to cause suicide among the Aboriginal people such as socio-psychological, economical, political, religious and cultural (Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, n.d).
The government together with other stakeholders has established numerous suicide prevention strategies, but as many researchers and analysts state, the program has largely failed to accomplish the stated goals, thus suicide cases and rates are still prevalent and high.
Therefore, the emphasis of this paper will be to evaluate the Suicide policy in Aboriginal communities in Northern Ontario and provide recommendations for possible re-invention of the policy.
Reinventing Suicide Policy in Aboriginal Communities in Northern Ontario
The issue of suicide in society has attracted numerous literatures where each piece of writing tries to explain the origin or source of suicide. Such literatures utilize the numerous theories that exist in explaining and analyzing the issue of suicide. Today, there are many theories that have been formulated by many researchers, which explain why people commit suicide in society.
For example in 1935, Freud formulated a theory, which postulated that people commit suicide to express their aggressive behaviors (Johnson, 2010, p.36). Shneidman and Farberow (1957) had a theory where they examined suicide in the context of comparing individuals with others using indicators of social acceptance.
On his part, Durkheim (1979) argued that suicide results from absence of social integration and social regulation (Johnson, 2010). Further, to Linehan (1993), suicide can be explained as a process which individual opts to in order to eliminate pain and suffering especially when the individual lacks appropriate coping mechanisms (Johnson, 2010).
Jamison (1999) was categorical on the issue of suicide where he noted that suicide manifested a wide impacts of pain and continuous disappointment among the victim and when such victims choose to terminate their lives, the general impression is that their life is characterized by absence of appropriate coping mechanisms (Johnson, 2010).
All these theories foster one important aspect about suicide, which is; suicide, as a concept is multidimensional and complex problem, which makes it more difficult to make assessment and treatment, but at the same time, it is clear that almost all suicides share some mental conditions.
Suicide among the Aboriginal communities
The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Committee identifies suicide as a special and urgent issue among the Aboriginal people. The observation of the committee is that Aboriginal people have un-addressed internal anguish that threatens to overpower them.
The committee describes the causes of suicide among the Aboriginals to be “the expression of a kind of collective anguish-part grief, part anger-tearing at the minds and hearts of many people.
This anguish is the cumulative effect of 300 years of colonial history: lands occupied, resources seized, beliefs and cultures ridiculed, children taken away, power concentrated in distant capitals, and hopes for honorable co-existence dashed over and over again” (Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Committee, n.d).
The Center for Suicide Prevention, in its publication, notes that during the pre-European contact era, suicide among the Aboriginal population in Canada was uncommon, and that suicide rates escalated during the past few decades.
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At the same time, in 1999, Health Canada established that suicide and self-injury cases had increased to assume the leading position as major cause of death among young people and adults up to about the age of 44 (cited in Center for Suicide Prevention, 2003).
During the same year, it was established that suicide and self-injury reported cases accounted for almost 38 per cent of deaths among the adolescents and young people while deaths among adults stood at 23 per cent (Center for Suicide Prevention, 2003).
Conducting another research in 1995, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples established that the rate of suicide among the Aboriginal population was three times more when compared with the general population of Canada (cited in Center for Suicide Prevention, 2003).
From the year 2000, the rate of Aboriginal suicide has been estimated to be twice that of overall national rate (Austin, 2010, p.949) and from 1999 to 2003 in Inuit regions, the rate of suicide has been ten times when compared with the national rate (Austin, 2010, p.949). Notably, adolescents who have Indian registration status are believed to be more likely to die from suicide than the average Canadian adolescent is (Austin, 2010).
Calling it an ‘epidemic’ The Edmonton Journal article observed that the rate of suicide in the whole nation of Canada was particularly higher among the Inuit population, where suicide cases among the population was estimated to be seven times the national rate which was 11.3 cases of suicides for every 100,000 persons (The Edmonton Journal, 2007, p.1).
Summarizing these astonishing data the article noted that suicide in the country had, “overshadowed communities even the healthy communities” (The Edmonton Journal, 2007, p.1).
These suicide rates for Aboriginal population may not be accurate since there have been some cases of underreporting. For instance, data information collected by the Statistics Canada are only for those who have Aboriginal status hence excluding non-status First Nations groups such as Métis and the Inuit people (Austin, 2010).
Further, the rate of suicides that can be regarded to be accidental among the Aboriginal people is 4-5 times higher than that of the general population, and almost 25 per cent of these deaths may be from suicide (White and Johnson, 2003 cited in Austin, 2010).
At the same time, although it is a clear fact that suicide rate is higher among the Aboriginal population as compared to other Canadians, it must also be recognized that not every Aboriginal community in Canada experiences high rates of suicide (White and Jodoin, 2003 cited in Austin, 2010).
There exist marked differences that are able to be observed between provinces, regions and also between the various communities found in a similar geographical region.
For example, while carrying out study for British Columbia’s Aboriginal communities, Chandler and Lalonde (1998) established that some particular communities possessed suicide rates of about 800 times when compared to the national average whereas in other communities suicide rate was totally unknown by the people (cited in Austin, 2010).
Contributing factors to suicide among Aboriginal
Numerous factors have been identified and explained and the conclusion has been that, in one way or in multiple ways, the factors have contributed to suicide among the Aboriginal. For instance, Minore, Boone, Katt, and Kinch (1991) identify key factors, which they term to be internal to the individual and that have the ability to lad an individual to commit suicide.
These internal factors are categorized into four groups: inter-personal relationships, suicide specific experiences, cultural grounding and future anxiety (Minore, Boone, Katt and Kinch, 1991).
Interpersonal relationships have to do largely with the individual’s family and peer friends and most young people claim that they commit suicide as a result of little or no communication between parents and children, children having feelings that they are not loved or wanted and also lack of experiencing quality love as a child, and stress as a result of failed relationships for the adolescents (Minore, Boone, Katt and Kinch, 1991).
Suicidal specific experiences have also been identified whereby specific suicide experiences are believed to have strong effect particularly on the adolescents. These experiences manifest themselves as ‘a contagion factor’ where cluster patterns of deaths have occurred.
This is stimulated by unresolved bereavement or grief which may encourage adolescents to follow suit of their colleagues who commit suicide (Minore, Boone, Katt and Kinch, 1991). The third factor has been associated with the level of cultural awareness especially among the adolescents.
What is evident is that there exist a wide age gap between the youth and elders among the Aboriginal communities and sadly, the elders are failing to transfer the wisdom of Aboriginal community to the young generation. As such, lack of connectedness to the Aboriginal culture and language is facilitating suicidal cases in the population (Minore, Boone, Katt and Kinch, 1991).
The article by Edmonton Journal identifies that the rate of suicide is influenced by factors such as deteriorating and unsupportive economy coupled with unemployment, rampant use of drugs and alcohol, mental illness and sexual abuse (Edmonton Journal, 2007, p.1).
On their part, three authors Dorin, Kaltemback and Rahal (2007) observe that many Aboriginal people have found themselves trapped in a vicious circle of unemployment, poverty and low esteem, the paramount factors that encourage youth to destroy themselves.
Leenaars (1998) on his part conducts an extensive study of factors that lead to suicide deaths among the northerners of Canada who largely are Aboriginal and his findings indicate that the northerners of Canada are engaged in chronic self-destructive behaviors. The author identifies the Inuit adolescents as worst affected group in which suicide deaths takes place.
Further, the author categorizes the factors as psychobiological factors, life history or situational factors and the socio-economic factors (Leenaars, 1998, p.354).
Writing on the same topic, Irwin (1985) and Tsai (1989) identifies other key factors that contribute to suicide deaths among the Aboriginal such as: breakdown of cultural values and traditions, a lack of effective role models and leadership, the breakdown of the family unit, a lack of parenting and interpersonal skills, inability to express feelings, failure of the school system to address needs, unemployment, misuse of alcohol and loss of or blurred identity (cited in Leenaars, 1998).
Other studies by Armstrong et al. (1978) and Dacks (1981) identified the negative effects of ‘internal colonialism’ in the northern region of Canada. The position adopted by the researchers was that this kind of internal colonialism resulted into acculturation and dependency, and as a result, numerous social problems were being experiencing by the northern communities.
Such social problems include; high rates of criminal prosecutions and school drop-outs, high birth rates in Canada and rampant chronic depression, intense and unmanageable jealous, anger, and violence among most youths in the northern region. Such crude environment was portent to accelerate cases of suicides among the residents of the region (Leenaars, 1998).
O’Neil (1986) on his part did extensive study of the Init youth where he concluded that the source of stress among youth of this community have less to do with change only rather have to do more with political and economic structures with constraints individual and community efforts to establish meaningful and rewarding social environments (cited in Minore, Boone, Katt and Kinch, 1991).
Further, the author noted that majority of the northerners generally internalize their frustrations and accept failure as the result of personal shortcomings. This tendency was the main factor in promoting lack of self-esteem among most youths that in turn led to cases of suicides.
O’Neil summarizes his findings by noting that, “in sum the suicide profile is personal: isolated individuals lacking in self-esteem, but it is also social: the result of cultures shattered on structural barriers” (Minore, Boone, Katt and Kinch, 1991, p.14).
Existing Policy structure to help the Aboriginal communities
Almost everybody in Canada acknowledges that there is an ‘epidemic’ as many Aboriginal youth succumb to suicide deaths. The Canadian government and other stakeholders have developed numerous policy frameworks with aim of addressing the issue of Aboriginal suicide deaths.
Currently, Royal Mounted Canadian Police (RCMP) has become one of the key institutions in Canada developing, facilitating, and influencing strategic priorities for the Aboriginal population (Royal Mounted Canadian Police, 2009).
RCMP has established close ties with Aboriginal communities where the organization is involved in providing policing services to the communities and the services have evolved to become culturally competent.
For instance, RCMP claims that, “we continue to influence public policy, provide policing services in hundreds of communities across Canada, and work closely with Aboriginal groups to develop innovative policing approaches that meet their distinctive needs” (Royal Mounted Canadian Police, 2009, p.1).
RCMP has an organ known as National Aboriginal Policing Services (NAPS) that has for time being involved in “planning, developing and managing the organization’s strategies and initiatives for working with Aboriginal communities” (Royal Mounted Canadian Police, 2009, p.1).
Some of the programs NAPS fosters include: “Aboriginal Youth Training Program; White Stone-Youth Aboriginal Advisory Committee; Aboriginal Perceptions Training; Inuit Perceptions Training; Community Profiles-online reports about the detachment activities in specific communities; Annual Performance Plans, which address an offense or negative social issue that concerns the community” (Royal Mounted Canadian Police, 2009,p.1).
White Stone program which is a national program trains Aboriginal youth in matters of care giving, suicide prevention and risk identification.
Although the above policy may form one of the success policy frameworks in addressing the issues of the Aboriginal, other past efforts to create policy for the communities failed. For example, Armitage, (1995) notes that for the last one, half century, Canada has applied European social policy to the people of Aboriginal, and consequently, most of the policies have failed.
To the author the social policies failed greatly to achieve any of the initial objectives of protection, assimilation and integration. The reasons for these failures include; assumption of racial superiority of the European, the attitude of the colonialist which largely became insensitive and imposed the policy without consultation.
Further the failure was due to inability of the professional practice to mould aboriginal children (Armitage, 1995). The author suggests that as a result of the failed social policies, there was need for the development of an alternative policy based on several principles.
First, Aboriginal culture to be recognized as possessing integrity and therefore to be respected; second, Aboriginal should be given freedom to enjoy the right to change and incorporate European ideas to their cultures; and finally, Aboriginal peoples have the right to the legal and material resources that are essential to guarantee alternative policies success (Armitage, 1995).
David et al. (n.d) discovered that most of the earlier policies paid attention to individual causation factors and therefore, the policy formulated in turn did not address the needs of the Aboriginal people. The authors proposed a holistic approach to the study of the Aboriginal people before coming up with a holistic approach to address their needs.
As such, the authors proposed the Intergenerational Trauma Model which has the ability to access the consequences of intergenerational trauma across four systems (David et al., n.d). The conviction of the authors was that less emphasis was paid by the government policies to the culture of the Aboriginal, how individuals in these communities interact with their caregivers, and how individuals interact with their birth communities.
The authors acknowledged the fact that most policy frameworks had recognized and proposed for culturally relevant and culturally congruent policies, little had been done to provide for a lifelong treatment models in a continuum-support approach (David et al., n.d).
The authors summarize their study by noting that policies that only focus on helping people meet their personal needs are likely in ineffective way address the underlying causes of problems experienced by the Aboriginal people.
Citing studies done by other researchers, the authors state that data on the rate of youth suicide in Aboriginal communities indicate a strong correlation between programs that promote positive self-image, well-being, and reduced suicides rates in the Aboriginal communities (David et al., n.d).
Therefore, the authors are convinced that it is a holistic approach with ability to reconstruct the links between the individual, family, community, and the Aboriginal nation, which can adequately address the suicide issue Among the Aboriginal (David et al., n.d).
Integrating Action research methodologies into Aboriginal policy
Action research, since its discovery, has been involved with practical issues; the kind of issues and problems, concerns and needs that arise as a routine part of activity in the real world (Winter and Munn-Giddings, 2001).
The practical orientation of action research has also meant that the research is largely aimed at changing things with guiding notion that research should not only be used to gain a better understanding of the problems which arise in everyday practice but should also have the capacity to alter things.
Kemshall and Littlechild (2000) observe that participation has become a key issue in the current social policy literature (cited in Lowes and Hulatt, 2005). Action research promotes service user involvement in research and often service user known as wider involvement is linked with emancipatory or empowerment research (Lowes and Hulatt, 2005).
Evans and Fisher (1999) observe that service users are the ones to be given the role of identifying the need for the research rather than joining in on research projects that have been identified already (cited in Lowes and Hulatt, 2005).
Generally, social research starts with open-ended inquiry where there are no already preconceived ideas and concepts, rather all the concerned people with interest in the program are incorporated here they identify the focus of the research (Lowes and Hulatt, 2005). The people participate in refining the objectives for the research, forming methods and also interpreting the data collected.
The essence of action research is to promote collaboration among the people affected and involved in the research process. In all its operation, action research operates on three main tenets: the agenda should be created and defined by those affected or with interest in the issue.
Research should be based on partnership between professional researchers and the affected groups, and lastly, the research should be based on recognition that all people possess the capacity to be creative and be part of creating change, hence need for collaboration (Lowes and Hulatt, 2005).
Re-inventing suicide policy for the Aboriginal communities
Numerous research and data exist on how effective suicide and other problems facing the Aboriginal communities of northern Canada can be approached. According to Warry (1998), an effective policy to address suicide among the Aboriginal communities should be designed with the goals of community development, cultural revitalization, improved economic opportunities, and the existence of Aboriginal political control.
Warry further observes that suicide among the Aboriginal communities can be viewed both in terms of metaphoric and symbolic (Warry, 1998) and the solution to this need be characterized by Aboriginal people being given time, resources and power to control their own lives and improve their communities. To achieve this, political will is necessary and a vision from Canadian leaders (Warry, 1998).
On their part, McCaslin and Boyer (2009) suggested that to realize an effective policy that has capacity to function, there should be an ongoing commitment and collaboration of community members, social health professionals and all levels of Canadian government.
The authors predict that, in the long-run culturally appropriate mechanisms will be the best way to resolve suicide deaths in the communities.
Chandler (1998), while suggesting on methods of preventing suicide in Aboriginal communities, he recommended that policy to address the issue should take into consideration the following key factors: land claims, self-government, education services, police and fire services, health services and cultural facilities (cited in Center for Suicide Prevention, 2003 ).
Warry, providing recommendations in his report of, ‘Choosing Life’, notes that for effective solution to the Aboriginal problems especially suicide, intervention strategies should be tailored-made based on three broad categories.
These include, the development of community-based crisis intervention; the sustained commitment to culturally appropriate, holistic health promotion; and long-term community healing strategies to improve the overall mental-health environment for Aboriginal children, youth and families (Warry, 1998).
From the above recommendations, it is clear that for an effective policy on suicide among the Aboriginal communities, there should be collaboration efforts between key stakeholders and action research is paramount. At the same time, recognition and respect of the Aboriginal cultures is necessary and lastly, empowerment of the Aboriginal people is necessary to guarantee any policy initiative success.
Guided by the immense literature and analysis of the numerous policy framework of Canada for the Aboriginal people, the following is a re-invented proposed policy that can be used to intervene in the issue of suicide among the Aboriginals.
Constructing Aboriginal worldviews
No policy initiative can take place and succeed without first having a clear worldview of the Aboriginal people. Worldview of any group of people affects their belief systems, decision making, assumptions and modes of problem solving (Ibrahim, 1984 cited in Kirmayer and Valaskakis, 2009).
LaFromboise, Trimble and Mohatt (1990) analyses the concept of worldview and suggest that, “knowledge of and respect for an Aboriginal worldview and value system which varies according to individual’s tribe, level of acculturation and other personal characteristics is fundamental not only for creating the trusting relationship of cooperation but also in helping and defining the intervention style or approach most appropriate for each individual” (cited in Kirmayer and Valaskakis, 2009, p.338).
Creating balance in the intervention program
An effective intervention policy among the Aboriginal people should be able to address the dimensions of the self, which include mental, physical, emotional and spiritual as equal parts of a larger whole (Kirmayer and Valaskakis, 2009).
When any of these is isolated then the whole program or policy will become dysfunctional. Balance is essential for the Aboriginal people since they view the world to be balance of transcendental forces, human beings and the natural environment.
Connectedness/involvement of the community
Aboriginals are in great capacity interconnected where the cultures of the communities is seen to be a series of relationships that start with the family (Kirmayer and Valaskakis, 2009). For the various problems prevalent in the communities, it has been suggested that the best place to create and implement programs to deal with such problems is in the community itself (Nelson and McCoy, 1992 cited in Kirmayer and Valaskakis, 2009).
Further, it has been observed that when externally designed systems and policies are imported to the communities they are likely to fail (Health Canada, 2003). Hence, there is need for community engagement where both the parents and the youth should be included in developing the appropriate policy, expounding values and also shaping the results of precedence issues (Health Canada, 2003).
Guarantee cultural stability
In essence, cultural stability involves the process of transmitting knowledge, values and identity from one generation to another in any particular community (Health Canada, 2003).
Transmission has to take place with a great sense and consideration of individual and collective health and wellbeing, belief with confidence in future whereby decisions made now have impact for the future as the culture of the people is concerned. The essence here is that, there should be a constant re-creation and re-invention of Aboriginal community practices in a way that respect, uphold, connect and honor the past.
Capacity building needs to be the ground upon which any meaningful policy operates. Capacity building should be enhanced and foster in order to improve the knowledge and skills of the Aboriginal communities so that in future the communities are able to tackle and find solution to the various problems affecting them (Health Canada, 2003).
The policy should ensure that youth are empowered in terms of learning and acquiring skills which they can use to resolve problems affecting them. At the same time, government role should be to provide key resources to facilitate the capacity building in different levels of the communities. Effective capacity building should be promoted in key areas of economy, education, governance, and health of the Aboriginal communities.
Suicide is a problem that continues to affect the Aboriginal communities of Northern Ontario. Various intervention measures have been designed with aim of helping families and other groups to deal with the issue, but as statistics continue to show, suicide is still an ‘epidemic’ in the region.
Aboriginal people are victims to cruel colonial system, isolation, discrimination and unfair justice but continue to find solace in their culture and religion. To effectively initiate and implant a policy that can address the issue of suicide, key stakeholders need to recognize the critical role of action research, which, apart from inquiring it has the ability to seek ‘relevant’ solution to key problems.
Further, effective policy framework will only work for the Aboriginal communities when the particular policy is able to address community involvement, empowerment, and decentralization of decision making organs, respect of the Aboriginal culture and promotion of collaboration.
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