Decolonizing Indigenous Youth Suicide
by Tunchai Redvers
My heart weeps
For those who feel they are not good enough
That they are not strong enough
That they are not worthy to themselves, to their communities, to their country
My heart weeps
Because Canada has made it near impossible for Aboriginal youth to feel supported
They are not supported
They are pushed to the peripheries of our society
Of our land
Of our nation
We have made a choice
To value certain lives over others
To ignore pain so strong that communities are painted with blood
To make excuses and half-assed statements
To not even try to understand the trauma that is present
My heart weeps and nobody cares
Hearts are weeping and nobody cares
We have entered a new era
Where children are no longer taken from their culture and families and sent off to residential schools
But instead where children are left alone to do the deed that Canada could not finish
Canada can now deny blame because its hands are not getting dirty
Because Aboriginal children are killing themselves
A suicidal genocide
A turned head, a pocket full of resources thrown past those who need it most
How many hanged children does it take for a nation to care?
In the 1880s the Government of Canada implemented the residential school system, where Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and families and placed into church-run schools where they were subject to assimilative and abusive practices, and where many of them died. The last residential school closed in 1996, yet in 2016, the suicide rates for Aboriginal youth in Canada are five to seven times higher than non-Aboriginal youth in Canada. The response to this ongoing crisis has been one that centers on the injection of government dollars into crisis-oriented and short-term solutions. In many of the isolated communities where these youth are attempting to (and succeeding in) taking their own lives, non-Indigenous social workers and mental health workers are flown into the community for a few weeks to a few months at a time to counsel broken youth and families, only to leave and never come back again until the next string of suicides. The same response would, however, not be deemed appropriate or even considerable if a string of suicides occurred in a non-Indigenous community. A key characteristic of colonialism is the effort to govern Indigenous peoples, and therefore at its heart is the construction of unequal relations of power between the colonizers and the colonized.
In 2009, the National Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy Program Framework identified suicide as the second leading cause of death among Aboriginal youth. Seven years after this prevention strategy was released, suicide is now identified as the leading cause of death. Clearly then, the response that Canada has given to the issue of Indigenous youth suicide has not been adequate Considering that conditions have only worsened, Canada’s response (or lack thereof) appears to have only made things worse. In order to appropriately and adequately address the injustice of Indigenous youth suicide in Canada, the response to Indigenous youth suicide needs to be decolonized.
How does imposing colonial perspectives of helping and a Western mental health framework onto youth now differ from the imposition of religious and colonial values onto children in residential schools? We cannot discern between the two. Western narratives of mental health and helping need to be scrapped and replaced with practices that are guided three key pieces of social justice: fostering positive identification, opportunities for self-expression, and invitations to participate in decision-making. Indigenous youth need to have a say in how they are being helped and be invited to create their own mental health programming; they need people working with them who they can relate to and whom they trust; and they need programming that reflects their communities and culture. Three practices that reflect these key pieces are listening, using role models, and challenging current norms. These three things are grounded in a preventative and holistic rather than reactive approach to addressing suicide.
and it is not
take out the
keys we already
and listen with
that we can
a nation’s pain
How can we understand another when instead of listening deeply, we rush to repair that person in order to escape further involvement. The sense of isolation and invisibility that marks so many lives whom we constantly try to fix — is in part due to a mode of ‘helping’ that allows us to dismiss each other. My brother was holding a workshop with Indigenous youth in Vancouver prior to the launch of our organization, We Matter, a national multi-media campaign for Indigenous youth who are going through a hard time. During this workshop he had posed a question to the youth aged 13 to 19 years-old: “What would help you most as youth (who have either contemplated or attempted suicide)?” In response, a teenage boy said something along the lines of: “We want people to help us not because they have to, but because they want to.” When my brother shared this anecdote with me, the first thing I could think of was the millions of dollars’ worth of non-Indigenous social workers being flown into Indigenous communities to counsel youth attempting suicide. It also made me wonder how many of those social workers asked these youth “What would help you most?”
Friere, argues “attempting to liberate the oppressed without their reflective participation in the act of liberation is to treat them as objects which must be saved from a burning building”. Indigenous youth are never going to feel hopeful in their existence so long as they are entrenched in a culture of silence, and only prescribed with solutions from others. Youth in these communities are the experts in what they are experiencing and know exactly what it is that they need in order to feel supported. Any attempt to empower youth out of suicidal ideation without listening to their needs only perpetuates what has become a common narrative since the time of residential schools: don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel. Preventative and proactive solutions to youth suicide simply involve sitting down and listening to the needs of youth, and encouraging a dialogue that affirms youth struggle and their capacity in determining solutions for their own well-being.
You are as strong
As the ones who
Walked before you
We come from the blood
And the heart
So when you
Hold your head low
Look for the path carved
In front of you
Rather than the current mental health mechanisms that favour Western evidence-based practices and therapeutic models that are used by individuals going to and working in communities, Indigenous youth can be introduced to people who have experienced what they are experiencing and who can build mentoring relationships with them. Role modeling is an indirect and non-confrontational way of helping that can serve and support youth to see their own potential. I recall being a young teenager who was always so lost in my identity due to the limited number of positive Indigenous role models who were portrayed in textbooks and the media. The strong, intelligent, and successful native was never a person that I thought existed, so when I started to struggle with mental health and other issues, I felt completely helpless in my ability to overcome.
When I began to hear life stories from people who had experienced struggle and overcome that struggle, people who I could relate to and who inspired me, I began to feel better about the process of working through the tough parts of life and moving forward. Storytelling yields powerful solutions in the lives of those who speak and of those who listen. Indigenous role models and mentors are an incredible asset that can be utilized in communities. Investing in mentorship programs and the promotion of Indigenous faces in media, on posters, and in schools can yield much better results in addressing youth suicide than imposed workers who do not understand the culture, language, or environment where youth reside. Indigenous mentors and role models have life experiences that have bred lessons, and these lessons are much more powerful when they are shared truthfully and thoughtfully with those seeking guidance rather than therapy.
My tongue grew up weighted
And for every word I learn
To speak in my language
It gets a generation
Through the trees
My breath is clear
The whisper of a new day
Lingering on my tongue
As my heart is lulled
Into the timeless warmth
Of a moon so tranquil
That suddenly everything seems
- full moon
For over a century, Indigenous peoples have been forcibly disconnected from their land and culture. The children that were taken to residential schools lost their languages, culture, and connections to the land and water where they were from. Today, seven generations later, this disconnection has been passed on to many of the youth. Ross notes that everything healers explore seems to boil down to connection and disconnection. Mental health, land, and culture are three things that cannot be separated. When mental health is discussed separately from land and culture,(as is the case in Western discussions of mental health), there is disconnection. Positive identity comes from understanding where one comes from, so when youth do not have the tools present to explore and learn about who they are and where they come from, parts of themselves are missing.
I propose two scenarios. In one scenario, multiple youth in a community are on suicide watch, and the government has allocated money for a crisis worker from outside the community to rotate every week into the northern community to meet with these youth. A few months have passed, and either the crisis worker chooses to discontinue their work, or the money for the short-term crisis work has run out. In another scenario, multiple youth are on suicide watch, and the government has allocated long-term funding for the community to hire a respected traditional knowledge holder and hunter to take these youth out on the land on a regular basis. The youth are able to spend time learning traditional activities, connecting to the land and water, and listening to teachings about the history of the area. They are able to build relationships with each other and a local community member, while also skill building and spending time connecting to everything around them.
Mental health programming needs to be done in a way that encompasses Indigenous understandings of wellness and that fosters positive identity among youth in their regional contexts. This can so easily be done using current community strengths and drawing on resources such as culture and land as healing processes. Long-term and sustainable community-based programming that encompasses Indigenous values has the potential to transform the way youth understand themselves. Decolonizing Indigenous youth suicide means involving youth in programming processes, promoting positive identity, findings ways to share with and connect to youth, using local community strengths, and defining mental health in a non-Western way. An elder told me once that “spirit lives on love, patience, and understanding”, and this is exactly how we need to feed the spirits of Indigenous youth.
Comack, E. (2012). Colonialism Past and Present. In Racialized Policing: Aboriginal People’s Encounters with the Police. (pp. 66-68). Fernwood Publishing.
Friere, P. (2003). Chapter One. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (pp. 43-69). New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group.
Gale, T. (2000). Rethinking social justice in schools: How will we recognize when we see it? International Journal of Inclusive Education, 4(3), 253-269.
Michael, H. (2002). Foundations of an Aboriginal Approach. In Seeking Mino-Pimatsiwin: An Aboriginal Approach to Helping. (pp. 39-59). Fernwood Publishing.
Palmer, P. (2004). Deep Speaks to Deep: Learning to Speak and Listen. In A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. (pp. 113-128). San Francisco: Joseey-Bass.
Tunchai Redvers is a Dene/Metis 2Spirit social justice warrior, writer and wanderer born from Denendeh roots in what is now the Northwest Territories. Through her writing, work, studies, and being, she actively works to normalize and decolonize discussions on hardship, hope and healing, and indigenize mental health, identity and self-love. She is the the co-founder of We Matter, a national non-profit organization committed to Indigenous youth empowerment, hope and life promotion.