Inuk student biking across Canada to raise awareness of suicide crisis among Inuit youth

Hannah Tooktoo, 24, left Victoria Sunday for an eight-week cross-Canada bicycling trip. (Hannah Tooktoo)
After a wave of youth suicides in Nunavik, the Inuit region of Northern Quebec, last fall, Inuk student Hannah Tooktoo felt helpless living over 1,400 kilometres south from her family and friends in her hometown of Kuujjuaq, Que.

“I’ve already lost some good friends and cousins to suicide. Every time someone passes away, it brings back their deaths. I’m grieving all over again,” said Tooktoo.

The 24-year-old has been living on and off in Montreal for the last six years, and she currently attends Dawson College. She said she struggled, being alone in the city.

“There was no one to really lean on,” said Tooktoo.

“I know I’m not the only one struggling with that.”

She decided to do something about it.

Instead of returning to Kuujjuaq for the summer, she flew to Victoria, on Canada’s West Coast. On Sunday, she began an eight-week bike ride across Canada for her own healing, and to raise awareness of the prevalence of youth suicide in Nunavik. Her message is “Anirnimi kipisina” or “do not cut your life short.”

“What can I do to heal myself and what I can I do to do my part?” she said she asked herself.

Tooktoo has been training over the past month by taking long bike rides around Montreal in preparation of her trip. (Hannah Tooktoo)

Tooktoo said wherever she ends up in eight weeks, she’ll stop her ride there and continue next summer.

“This is a way for me to take control of my life,” said Tooktoo.

“Biking is medicine for your body, mind and your soul. Especially, going up those mountains in B.C. is going to be a test of how strong I am, how mentally strong I can be. I need to exercise that.”

Suicide crisis last October

Last October, 13 deaths by suicide occurred in Nunavik prompted an emergency meeting by the Kativik school board. In April, Tooktoo lost a cousin to suicide.

“I’ve been dealing with these deaths, and I’ve gone into a very unhealthy place in the last year,” said Tooktoo.

“I wasn’t able to get out of bed, I wasn’t the best mother and partner I could be and the best person I could be to myself.”

She recognizes the need for more attention to and services for mental health support in Inuit and Indigenous communities.

“There needs to be something better out there for us,” said Tooktoo.

“How are we supposed to grieve if we’re dealing with waves of crisis?”

She said the bike ride is her way of helping. It hasn’t gone unnoticed. She has raised more than $7,000 in donations and support from Inuit organizations in Montreal.

“Hannah is an example of what you can do with your knowledge or pain,” said James Vandenberg, an education consultant with Nunavik Sivunitsavut, a one-year post-secondary program on Inuit and circumpolar history, politics, governance, culture and language in Montreal.

Vandenberg said Tooktoo is a role model for future students who take the program.

“What Hannah is doing is giving a positive outlet for her. You feel like you can’t do anything, but you can do something. That’s something we try to instill in our students.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Petition to get suicide crisis declared in Arctic Quebec breaks 50,000 signatures, CBC News

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

Jessica Deer, CBC News

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