Disturbing figures compiled now for the first time show that Inuit of northern Quebec have a shorter life expectancy today than they did 20 years ago, due partly to a high number of suicides among the young people.
If you’re an Inuk in northern Quebec aged 15 to 19, you’re 25 times more likely to take your life than the average Quebecer your age, says the study now circulating among Inuit officials and health workers in Nunavik.
The Inuit life expectancy in Nunavik used to be around 65 years in the early 1970s—before the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was signed. Today, it’s 60 years, less than South Africa’s and equal to that of India, says the study. The Canadian life expectancy is 77 years.
“The feelings are really deep when you see those figures,” says Sheila Watt-Cloutier, education resource person at Makivik Corp. “It’s just an incredible picture.”
Watt-Cloutier says kids commit suicide when they think there’s no other way out of despair. “It comes from the depletion of personal powers and not having the support or skills to deal with stress.”
What’s at the root of the suicide rate is a feeling of disempowerment, says Watt-Cloutier. “It’s a whole bigger story than alcohol and drugs. It’s the whole issue of independence,” she said. “If you just add more police, bigger hospitals, more social services without really tackling the issue of empowerment of people, it just becomes a big business.”
Young people have taken some steps themselves to deal with the problems by creating youth organizations, she said. “The youth are taking big steps in leaps and bounds to tackle the problems themselves, but they have a long way to go,” she said. “You need leadership to support that. If you don’t have that, forget it.”
But it’s not all bad news in the study, which was prepared by the Kativik Health and Social Services Board’s public health department in Kuujjuaq. Eating country food has made Inuit more resistant to heart disease, especially Inuit Elders.
Unfortunately, this is counteracted by the high rate of smoking among Inuit.
Brian Schnarch, the author of the study, said he was taken a back by some of his findings. “The fact that life expectancy isn’t increasing is fairly surprising and dramatic. Pretty much around the world when you see development of health services and economic development, it goes hand-in-hand with higher life expectancy,” he said. “Obviously something else is going on.”
Causes preventable But Schnarch said there are answers to the problems.
“The causes (of the falling life expectancy) are mostly preventable so there’s scope for doing work to improve the situation,” he said.
Cutting back on smoking would improve a fair bit on life expectancy. At the moment, Nunavik residents are six times more likely to die of respiratory diseases than Quebecers, and almost 50 percent more likely to die of cancer. Smoking is to blame.
Schnarch said he hopes the study will give Inuit communities and health workers information they need to set priorities and plan their services.
Sarah Airo, youth coordinator at Makivik, linked the high suicide rate to two important social problems—substance abuse and family violence. “(Suicide) is a very serious problem and it has to be recognized by government and non government organizations,” she said.
Airo pointed to the Health Board’s creation of youth centres in Kuujjuaq and Inukjuak and the recent formation of the Nunavik Youth Association as hopeful developments.
The study also found: • Thirty-nine Inuit took their own lives between 1989 and 1993, the years the study is based on. Spread out over 7,000 Nunavik residents, that’s a rate eight times higher than the Quebec average.
• The Nunavik infant mortality rate is four times the Canadian average.
• Inuit are seven times more likely than the average Quebecer to experience trauma deaths (which includes suicide, murder, fire, drowning, exposure and vehicle accidents).
• Canadian Natives aged 15 to 19 are five times more likely to commit suicide than Quebecers their age.
• The study also has a few numbers from James Bay: Crees on average live five years shorter than Canadians and the Cree infant mortality rate is30 percent higher.
Copies of the report are available by calling Brian Schnarch at 819-964-2222.