By: Manon Busseron
Five suicide deaths have occurred in the Innu reserve of Uashat-Maliotenam, near Sept-Îles (Quebec), home of more than 4,000 people. An inquiry was conducted by Quebec’s coroner, Bernard LeFrançois, to determine the circumstances of these deaths and, above all, to analyze the victims’ broader living context in order to understand the high suicide rates that have affected aboriginal communities.
LeFrançois’ final report underlines that First Nations people are more affected by poverty, unemployment, alcohol, drug consumption, imprisonment, domestic violence, school dropout, and suicide issues.
Since 1994, 44 deaths by suicide occurred in the reserve of Uashat-Maliotenam. LeFrançois and Innu Chief Mike McKenzie believe that although suicides are mostly linked to personal discontent, structural causes must also be examined. Indeed, LeFrançois said that the entire reserves system “contributes to mental health problem[s] and substance abuse.” Aboriginal people are often isolated from health and suicide prevention services. For instance, the Naskapi have to travel 900km to get addiction treatment in their own language or English.
In his report, LeFrançois called reserves an “apartheid system,” in reference to the discriminating system towards black people established in South Africa between 1948 and 1994.
He put this idea directly in relation to reserves and suicides, stating that “the great fundamental problem lies with the ‘apartheid’ system into which aboriginals have been thrust for 150 years or more,” and that “the Indian Act is an ancient and outdated law that establishes two kinds of citizens, aboriginals and non-aboriginals.” He described the exclusion aboriginal people have faced: “The aboriginal is a ward of the State, someone considered incapable and unfit.”
First Nations representatives reacted positively to this report. Jean-Claude Therrien Pinnette, a spokesman for Uashat-Maliotenam people, agreed with the label “apartheid,” with the understanding that the name was an accurate assessment.
The report is considered by the coroner and First Nations’ chiefs as a step towards improvement for the Uashat-Maliotenam reserve, but also for all the other aboriginal people that are affected by the issues previously mentioned. Indeed, the report acknowledges that the people who committed suicide had their own reasons but also shared an aboriginal identity marked by their life in reserves. It seeks to find solutions to sociological and structural problems in order to prevent any more suicide.
The report offers 44 recommendations to provinces and to social institutions, including the creation of an aboriginal suicide prevention centre with Indigenous staff in Ottawa, a regional task force to fight drug trafficking, and the development of therapy centers and addiction treatment facilities for aboriginal people.
Quebec’s Minister for Rehabilitation, Youth Protection, Public Health, and Healthy Living, Lucie Charlebois, also highlighted that her government was holding a multi-year inquiry into the treatment of Indigenous people.
The suicide rate among Aboriginal people in Canada remains twice as high as non-aboriginals’.