Indigenous Youth Suicide Through an Intersectional Social Justice Lens

by: Tunchai Redvers 

Suicide is not a topic that is typically discussed within the discourse of social justice. However, when one adds the terms “Indigenous” and “youth” to the equation, it becomes harder to discern suicide from the social justice discussion. Suicide tends to dominant mainstream rhetoric in an individualized way, where the person and their inability to cope with adversity becomes the focal point. This article attempts to highlight Indigenous youth suicide as a social issue that is not mutually exclusive from the social justice discussion, but rather is a direct result of larger oppressive systems. In order to understand Indigenous youth suicide as a social issue, one first needs to  deconstruct the concepts of oppression and social justice as it relates to Indigenous youth suicide.

Oppression can be defined as the inequitable distribution of structural and institutional power, resulting in the lack of access, opportunity, safety, security and resources of marginalized populations (YWCA). When populations are denied socio-economic and political rights, their opportunity for advancing in various areas of their life is inhibited. When populations are denied socio-economic and political rights for generations, oppression becomes systematic and inherent. Friere’s theory of oppression has two important elements that are particularly relevant to these systems of power and inherency: the tragic dilemma of the oppressed and internalization. “The oppressed suffer from the duality which has established itself in their innermost being. Although they desire authentic existence, they fear it” (Friere, 2003). The duality that Friere discusses speaks directly to the lack of privilege that marginalized groups have in choosing their identities in relation to the systematic norm. Oppression places marginalized groups between a rock and a hard place. They have to surrender to the norms of the dominant narrative (i.e. to those in power) or they have to risk facing the consequences of not adhering to the dominant narrative (i.e. are targeted). As Friere puts it, oppressed groups have to choose between being wholly themselves or being divided, speaking out or being silent.

The elements of oppression that are most concerning are both remaining in silence and surrendering to systematic norms, whether consciously or not. The systematic norm that governs oppression can seem so inherent that it is difficult to distinguish between what is “oppressive” and what is “normal”. Friere describes the oppressive reality as “absorbing those within it”. This speaks to the internalization of oppression, which is arguably the point at which complete oppression has been achieved. When populations cannot describe their lack of access, opportunity, safety, security, and resources as being a result of systematic oppression, but instead normal reality, there becomes little hope for improvement. Marginalized groups are given negative images of themselves, they are taught inferiority, and they are not given a voice (Heldke & Connor, 2004), and this becomes their reality.

Social justice, in relation to oppression, is the acknowledgement of systematic norms and the resistance to those norms. The common synonym for social justice is usually ‘equality’. In protests, in debates, in mainstream discourse, social justice tends to be equated with the need for all people to be treated the same and to be treated fairly. However, although it is incredibly important for groups to have access, opportunity, safety, security and resources, social justice should not stop there. Gale (2000) provides a definition of social justice that is useful in moving beyond the basic idea of social justice as meaning equality, which is termed recognitive justice. Recognitive justice is particularly helpful in addressing the tragic dilemma and internalization of the oppressed that was discussed above. Gale (2000) outlines three key pieces that are necessary for this form of social justice: fostering respect for social groups through self-identification, opportunities for a group’s self-development and self-expression, and the participation of groups in making decisions that directly affect them. These three pieces of recognitive justice, along with the two key pieces of Friere’s theory of oppression, need to be brought into the discussion of Indigenous youth suicide.

Indigenous youth suicide has been a prevalent topic in Canada over the past year. Although suicide among Indigenous youth has always been an issue, it has been receiving considerable attention in the media more recently. The reality is that Aboriginal youth die by suicide at a rate five to seven times higher than non-Aboriginal youth in Canada, making suicide the leading cause of death among Indigenous youth. Given the pervasiveness of Indigenous youth suicide in these remote communities, a key focus has to be on the question of why so many youth (in some cases, children) feel so hopeless about their current circumstance that they feel the only solution is to take their own life. 

Looking more closely, it becomes clear that many of these suicides happen in remote communities that are still essentially governed by the federal government under the Indian Act and/or other dominant federal or provincial legislation that controls the land and resources in and around these communities. In essence, this high rate of suicide is occurring within a system of structural power and an environment of normalized oppression. The discourse and media’s attitude however, tends not to focus on inherent systems of normalized power, but instead on the “6 girls in Saskatchewan who committed suicide”.1

1. Referring to the most recent release of media headlines regarding six young girls in Saskatchewan dying by suicide

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