Community in Arctic Canada holds suicide prevention meetings following deaths

Health officials are visiting Baker Lake, Nunavut this week to discuss suicide prevention strategies in the wake of three suicides since December. (CBC)
Officials with Nunavut’s Health Department are in Baker Lake this week for a series of suicide prevention meetings, following three suicides in the community since late December.

Victor Akande, the executive director for health operations for the Kivalliq region and Barb Funk, the region’s mental health manager are meeting with local groups to talk about what types of support they need.

“This is not something the Department of Health, or the Nunavut government alone can do. Part of the effort has to come from the community, we all have to work together.” Akande said.

Victor Akande, the executive director of health operations for Nunavut’s Kivalliq Region is in Baker Lake this week for a series of meetings on suicide prevention. (Submitted by Sarah Paterson/Nunavut Health Department)

“We can’t tell the community what is wrong and how we are going to fix it,” he said. “We have to come together and find solutions. The leadership has to come from the community.”

Akande and Funk arrived in Baker Lake Sunday and are staying until Wednesday. The meetings are set to develop priorities for moving forward. They’ve met with local hamlet officials, RCMP, students, teachers, as well as men’s and women’s groups.

“Our job is not to impose [a solution]. That will not help with community development,” Akande said. “Our job is to provide the community support that is needed and provide the resources as much as we have the capacity to do so.”

Akande says increased access to alcohol, especially for young people, has been singled out as one issue for the community during the meetings so far.

Last January, Baker Lake narrowly voted to lift restrictions on alcohol sales in the community. Since those restrictions were lifted in the spring, RCMP have noticed an increase in calls related to alcohol, Akande said.

Alcohol addiction and excessive drinking may be a risk factor for suicide, Akande explained, and several people have said they wish to see more alcohol education campaigns for young people and families.

“It’s important for us to find some way of promoting healthy homes, developing programs around parenting, developing programs around addictions and safe drinking,” Akande said.

Watch our 2017 report Mental Health in Canada – Can community programs in Arctic Canada make the difference?

Community in ‘dire straits’ says MLA

All of this is complicated by the ongoing nursing shortage in Baker Lake, says MLA Simeon Mikkungwak, who represents the community in the Legislative Assembly.

He’s described the community as being in “dire straits” right now, and says he’s noticed the waiting room at the community’s health centre is constantly full.

“To give you a clear picture of what I mean by dire straits — our health centre is so small and cramped and overcrowded, there’s the shortage of nurses, our elders’ facility is shut down and there’s the suicides,” Mikkungwak said.

Seven of 10 nursing positions in Baker Lake are currently filled, six full-time and one on a casual basis, according to Nunavut’s Health Department.

Following the most recent suicides, two mental health nurses have been in the community on an emergency basis, Akande explained. Soon, they will be replaced by two full-time mental health nurses who will be expected to stay on long-term.

“We want to bring better stability to that work. It’s always better for residents to deal with the same two people without having to deal with four or five nurses in one year,” he said.

Akande said he expects the first of the full-time positions to be filled within a few weeks and the second to be filled shortly after.

Where to get help:

First Nations and Inuit Watch helpline at 1-855-242-3310.

Canada Suicide Prevention Service

Toll-free 1-833-456-4566

Text: 45645


In French: Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (Phone), Live Chat counselling at

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre

If you’re worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them about it, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

Here are some warning signs:

  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Purposelessness.
  • Anxiety.
  • Feeling trapped.
  • Hopelessness and helplessness.
  • Withdrawal.
  • Anger.
  • Recklessness.
  • Mood changes.
Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Death in the Arctic – A community grieves, a father fights for change, Eye on the Arctic special report

Finland: Canada’s Inuit hope Finland carries Indigenous suicide prevention torch further, Radio Canada International

Russia: Why high suicide rates in Arctic Russia?, Deutsche Welle’s Iceblogger

Sweden: Gender stereotypes behind high suicide rate, Radio Sweden

United States: Alaska’s suicide rates jump 13 percent, report shows, Alaska Public Media

Alex Brockman, CBC News

For more news from Canada visit CBC News.

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