Rethinking Indigenous Suicide in Canada and Giving Land Back


Canadian Minister of Health

Re: Suicide in our indigenous communities

Dear Mr. Jean-Yves Duclos,

            I write to you with an urgency to rethink about how and why we are losing a staggering number of young indigenous people to suicide throughout our country. How does the reality of ending one’s life comes to the fore for so many indigenous people? I would like you to consider the colonial legacy that indigenous communities in Canada live within, reflect on how the legacy shapes the suicide crisis, and make effective structural changes to prevent more deaths.

In this letter, I first describe the suicide crisis in indigenous communities in Canada and critique the government’s “Suicide Prevention Framework” for focusing too much on the individual rather than structural forces that shape suicide. Then, I illustrate how social researchers like anthropologists and sociologists have thought about suicide as a product of specific cultural histories and contexts like Canada’s history of colonialism and violence. Finally, I argue for a more contextually sensitive response from your office; namely, I call for solutions that foster community identity, a sense of control, and a connection to the land. Interventions like giving land back to these communities can not only be a form of reconciliation, but also can serve as a life-saving measure.

Suicide in indigenous communities

            According to the 2019 Statistics Canada report on suicide, First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people died from suicide at a rate of three times more than non-indigenous people in Canada; the rates among Inuit, adolescents, and youth were the highest (Kumar & Tjepkema, 2019). We are losing young people to suicide, and we need make changes.

The latest suicide prevention framework from the Canadian government in 2016 includes the following intervention themes: improving public awareness and knowledge of suicide, disseminating information about suicide, making statistics more publicly available, promoting better knowledge exchange, defining best practices for suicide prevention, and the use of research and evidence-based practices for suicide prevention (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2016). More detailed interventions include suicide phone hotlines, training for first responders, and mental health literacy programs (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2016). The framework and interventions suggest that this crisis stems from an individual’s lack of awareness of mental health and access to resources. These solutions echo your analysis on the uptake of social benefits for your PhD dissertation at the LSE. You wrote about how the reduced uptake of social benefits can be explained by non-claimants, particularly from lower-income situations, behaving “irrationally” by refusing to claim their benefit entitlement; you conclude that “information about the application procedure and the administration of the state benefit may not be freely and perfectly available. (Duclos, 1992, p. 136). From my point of view, these approaches fall short because they ignore the nuanced social and historical contexts that can also help explain why people make certain decisions.

These issues of suicide are more complex than access to information. Rather, they are rooted in greater, structural forces like Canada’s ongoing colonial legacy. They are rooted in what sociologist Johan Galtung calls “structural violence” which describes the social, economic, and political arrangements that put individuals and communities in harm’s way (Farmer et al., 2006). To understand how to better intervene on this complex topic of suicide and structural violence, let us first look deeper into how suicide is thought about and apply that to Canada’s violent colonial legacy.

Rethinking suicide

Social researchers have much to offer when thinking about suicide less as an individual act, but as a product of historical and social contexts. C. Wright Mills, an early sociologist coined the term “the sociological imagination” which is helpful to examine personal experiences and determine if they are indeed private in nature, or “their actual origin lies with broader social and historical forces” (Andrews, 2007, p. 1). Personal experiences like suicide tend to be blamed on the individual’s personal and moral failings rather than correlated to larger historical and social forces (Staubmann, 2021, p. 181). It is valuable to use the sociological imagination and ask what kind of historical and social forces are at play in the suicide crisis in Canada’s indigenous communities.

Another sociologist, Émile Durkheim, adds another facet to our understanding of suicide. Mills invites us to look at the bigger picture while Durkheim draws us to how social integration into a broader collective affects suicide. In the late 1800s, Durkheim described how suicide is related to feelings of being disconnected and disintegrated from a collective which he called “egoistic suicide” (Mueller et al., 2021). The greater someone is integrated into a social group or community, the less at risk they are for committing suicide.

Medical anthropologist Michael Kral conducted field work in an Inuit community from 2004-2005 to better understand the suicide crisis among men and some of his findings exemplify Durkheim’s notion of the egoistic suicide. He noted that today’s crisis started in the 1950s when the Canadian government took the community from their land, relocated them, and stole their children away to residential schools (Kral, 2013, p. 63). Kinship and social organization were disrupted in the community by the government, which destroyed the community members’ sense of control over their own life (Kral, 2013, p.64). In Kral’s conversations with a young man in the community, the man felt like his generation was taking on the burdens of his parent’s generation who were left directionless after having to move locations and give up their children; 12 of his friends had committed suicide and he tried to kill himself four times (Kral, 2013, p.70). This research illustrates the ongoing, intergenerational trauma of Canada’s colonialism. The trauma manifests as a lack of connection between generations and a lack of control over a community’s trajectory since land was taken and families were torn apart.

The sense of control and cultural continuity is critical in the discussion of suicide in indigenous communities. Joseph P. Gone, a Harvard professor in anthropology and medicine, and colleague Alcántara describe suicide risk factors for American Indian communities in the United States. They note how the presence of “cultural continuity” (in the form of control over land, self-government, control of police and fire services, and cultural facilities) in certain American Indian and Alaska Native communities was associated with reduced or non-existent rates of suicide (Alcántara and Gone, 2007, p. 472).The lasting colonial effects of social disintegration and a lack of control over both community identity and community infrastructure like land and health systems lead to the suicide crisis we face today in Canada. Consequently, interventions that place control back into indigenous communities can be a more effective and holistic approach to save lives.

Reframing the issue and giving land back

            I hope I have reframed the issue at hand from ‘indigenous people are committing suicide at a high rate’ to ‘Indigenous communities face fractured senses of identity, alienation from their land, and disruptions to how they foster cultural continuity between generations that lead many to commit suicide.’ I urge your office to consider interventions that are less focused on the individual and more focused on fostering a sense of community identity and self-determination to prevent suicides that are often a result from social disintegration and lasting ruptures from colonialism in Canada. Therefore, it would be appropriate to complement the current national suicide prevention framework with interventions that address the root causes of this crisis. One intervention is to give land back to these communities. Land is central to social cohesion, control, and community identity. Land was taken from indigenous communities long ago and as shown in the study in the Inuit community, started a chain reaction that led to community disintegration and suicide. “By asserting Indigenous rights to land, communities strengthen their connections to the source of their knowledge systems, identities, and nationhood (Nightingale and Richmond, 2022, p. 1). Research suggests that “a relationship with nature, land or natural environment, has been a significant component of many Indigenous Peoples’ lives, identities, and cultures and is seen as an important determinant of Indigenous health” (Hatala et al., 2020, p. 2). A relationship with the land can also serve as an effective way to adapt and resist in the face of colonization, historical traumas, or structural violence (Hatala et al., 2020, p. 2). Land is paramount in discussions of health, cultural continuity, and identity for indigenous communities and was one of the primary sites where cultural continuity was destroyed for indigenous communities at the start of colonization in Canada.

To do your part in saving indigenous lives in Canada, I ask that you use your sociological imagination and your office’s power to address the deeply historical and social issues at hand behind the suicide crisis. The government needs to better support these communities by giving them greater control over their land, services, and community identities. Indigenous communities continue to pay the price for the government’s role in fracturing their ways of life, identities, and lands. Today, young people are paying for it, and it needs to come to an end.


Andrews, Christopher. 2015. “Sociological Imagination.” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. doi:10.1002/9781405165518.wbeoss205.pub2. 

Duclos, Jean-Yves. 1992. “Progressivity, Equity and the Take-up of State Benefits, with Application to the 1985 British Tax and Benefit System.” Dissertation. Thesis (University of London). 

Farmer, Paul E, Bruce Nizeye, Sara Stulac, and Salmaan Keshavjee. 2006. “Structural Violence and Clinical Medicine.” PLoS Medicine 3 (10). doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0030449. 

Gone, Joseph P., and Carmela Alcántara. 2007. ‘Identifying Effective Mental Health Interventions for American Indians and Alaska Natives: A Review of the Literature.’ Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 13 (4): 356–63.

Hatala, Andrew R., Chinyere Njeze, Darrien Morton, Tamara Pearl, and Kelley Bird-Naytowhow. 2020. “Land and Nature as Sources of Health and Resilience among Indigenous Youth in an Urban Canadian Context: A Photovoice Exploration.” BMC Public Health 20 (1). doi:10.1186/s12889-020-08647-z. 

Kral, Michael J. 2013. ‘“The Weight on Our Shoulders Is Too Much, and We Are Falling”: Suicide among Inuit Male Youth in Nunavut, Canada’. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 27 (1): 63–83.

Kumar, Mohan B., and Michael Tjepkema. 2019. Suicide among First Nations People, Métis and Inuit (2011-2016): Findings from the 2011 Canadian Census Health and Environment Cohort (CanCHEC). Government of Canada, Statistics Canada. June 28.

Mueller, Anna S., Seth Abrutyn, Bernice Pescosolido, and Sarah Diefendorf. 2021. “The Social Roots of Suicide: Theorizing How the External Social World Matters to Suicide and Suicide Prevention.” Frontiers in Psychology 12. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.621569. 

Nightingale, Elana, and Chantelle A.M. Richmond. 2022. ‘Building Structures of Environmental Repossession to Reclaim Land, Self-Determination and Indigenous Wellness’. Health & Place 73 (January): 102725.

Public Health Agency of Canada. 2016. “Suicide Prevention Framework.” November 28. 

Staubmann, Helmut. 2021. ‘C. Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination and the Construction of Talcott Parsons as a Conservative Grand Theorist’. The American Sociologist 52 (1): 178–93.

Image source: Photo by Aditya Vyas on Unsplash

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