Research tracks Inuit modernization with suicide
The Canadian Press
Published Monday, January 7, 2008 8:28AM EST
In a newly published article in the journal Aboriginal Issues, researcher Jack Hicks correlated suicide rates among Inuit people in Alaska, Nunavut and Greenland with the period when governments encouraged them to move off the land and into communities.
In all three countries, suicide rates began to rise among the first generation born in towns -- the sons and daughters of those who had grown up on the land.
The trend began in north Alaska in the 1960s, in Greenland in the 1970s and in Nunavut in the 1980s.
"It's a quite distinct time period in all three places, and it's the same order in which 'active colonialism' occurred - the period when the national governments really began to impact on the lifeways of their Inuit population," said Hicks, an Iqaluit-based PhD candidate at the University of Greenland.
Historically, Inuit suicide rates were quite low. Hicks said records suggest there was only one suicide in what is now Nunavut in the entire 1960s. As well, suicide tended to be concentrated among the old and sick.
But the 1960s marked the last gasp of traditional culture, before all Inuit were moved into communities.
Now Nunavut's suicide rate is 11 times the national average and claims the lives of about two dozen Inuit every year, mostly young men.
In Greenland, suicide began to increase among young men born after 1950, the same year the Danish government began its program of modernizing the territory.
"It's the children of the modernization period," said Hicks.
Neither Canada nor Alaska has comparable records for Inuit from that era. But because tuberculosis treatment was one of the first government services to be offered in those jurisdictions, Hicks was able to use deaths from TB as an index of government intervention.
"Guess what? The sharp decline in deaths from TB happened first in Alaska, second in Greenland and later in Canada."
Hicks maintains that modernization and suicide must be linked.
"It's the only logical explanation. It's very rare, anywhere in the world, that you see this sudden dramatic escalation in suicides. It's obviously socially determined."
Hicks emphasizes that most Inuit families are healthy and happy. But he suggests that modernization, by changing virtually everything about the way Inuit people had lived for centuries, left some parents uncertain about their roles in the new world and unable to give their children convincing role models.
"Some families had the coping skills and resiliency required to protect their children from these social forces, but others did not," he writes.
However, suicide rates in both Alaska and Greenland are finally starting to fall, largely thanks to dropping rates in the larger communities. Inuit suicide rates in Alaskan cities are less than one-third the rates of the smaller hamlets.
Hicks suspects the answer is related to stronger education and health systems in the bigger towns. Greater economic opportunities for parents may also play a role.
Something is making a difference, and Hicks says more research is needed to find out what it is.
"We can prevent a lot more than we are currently preventing," he said.
"Are governments taking the practical steps that a situation of this seriousness requires? It seems to me that they're not.
"What if we were losing 25 or 30 young people a year to AIDS? Front pages of the paper, tonnes of money ...
"But they can just slowly hang themselves in their bedrooms and we just get back to passing another piece of legislation."