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Native Suicide: A Challenge to the Church
Canada's First Nations leaders help us understand why Native suicide can be one of the highest in the world and how the Church can respond.

Faith Today asked ministry leaders who work among Canada's First Nations to help increase our understanding. They explain why the rate of Native suicide can be one of the highest in the world and how Christians can respond. Also, please see the related article, One Youth's Life or Death Struggle by Adrian Jacobs.

Suicide is a serious problem in any culture or community where it takes place, but it is a particularly challenging part of Native reality. Native men are more than three times as likely and Native women more than twice as likely to take their own lives compared to members of the mainstream population.

Many Canadians have a vague sense that the suicide rate among Natives has been much worse for a long time. We might remember the much publicized tragedies experienced by the Innu of Labrador. The fact is they experienced a rate of suicide between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s of 178 per 100,000—the highest documented rate in the world at the time.

According to the most recent Statistics Canada report (2003) that's many times worse than the national average of around 18 per 100,000 for men and five per 100,000 for women.

Since the Innu story faded from the media we may have assumed things have gotten better. Unfortunately that's not the case. Between 1992 and 2000 the rate in one community in north-western Ontario reached about 213 per 100,000. And this is not an isolated example. What's more, other tragedies like death by violence and substance abuse continue at a lower but still horrible level in many Native communities. To understand why there is such a dramatic difference between the majority society and Native peoples, let's have a closer look at the realities of suicide.

Defining the problem

Do you know the old Eagles' song "Hotel California?" It has a line in it that goes, "You can check out but you can never leave." A suicide attempt that succeeds is like that. A person may succeed in escaping the turmoil of life by committing suicide—he or she may "check out" as the slang expression puts it—but for those left behind the missing person seldom leaves their thoughts and emotions.

Sociologists tell us suicide rates ride the crests and troughs of social and economic change.

Suicide leaves deep emotional scars and many questions for those left to pick up the pieces. What might we have done to prevent this? Why didn't we see the signs? How is this possible? We usually think the person had so much to live for, yet the reason people commit suicide is that, for them, life has become too unbearable to manage.

Sociologists tell us suicide rates ride the crests and troughs of social and economic change. When the economy lags suicides increase. When boom times occur the rates are driven lower. In general, if a society is stable suicide rates decline, rising again in an unsettled social environment.

These correlations can help us get started understanding why Native suicide would be at a higher rate. After all, the social and economic realities of Native North America are among the worst. Negative health issues, for example, may be experienced by the majority Canadian population but they affect Native people with measurably greater intensity, according to Statistics Canada.

Or take meaningful work as another example. Joblessness pervades reserve and urban Native populations alike at double and triple the rates in other segments of the population. In some circumstances unemployment has reached 90 percent on reserves. Being without a job is often seen as a sign of a person's lack of significance and value, one of many significant stressors leading a person to consider suicide.

In study after sociological study, Native people and communities lead the way in all the wrong things—all the negative stats.

What's more, efforts to take charge of their lives and address community well-being through treaty implementation are often met by apathy in the public, sometimes even negativity.

For example, consider the call for an inquest into the suicide pandemic on one reserve of 5,500 people in which more than 100 suicide attempts had been recorded in one year.

"The government's response was that this situation was not unusual, many reserves experienced the same situation," and therefore no response was needed, explains former Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, himself a committed Christian.

Were this Peterborough or Kitchener, Red Deer or Brandon, it would evoke a national response. Why not here? This lack of action and apparent lack of concern to respond lies at the feet of governments and Canadians as a shameful response to the plight of Native Peoples.

Unfortunately such injustice is not the only contributor to the high incidence of suicide in the Native population. If only changing this one thing would solve the problem! But the roots of the problem go deeper.

Imagine how you might question your own worth if, for your entire life, you and your community felt publicly "unloved" by mainstream society. If your own parent said: "It's never done me a d--- bit of good to be an Indian. Don't expect it to do you any good either." How would you feel?

That gets a bit closer to the root of the problem: identity. Sir John A. Macdonald's comment about Native people in the early years of Confederation—that "beggars should not be choosers"—still seems to stick today.

Social science can help us think about identity issues. Experts generally agree that young people in any society need to resolve the adolescent identity crisis successfully in order to move on and become healthy, contributing members of their society. Failure to do so frequently leads to problems in adulthood—problems "fitting in," resulting in aberrant, socially maladaptive behaviours and increased personal, social and family dysfunction.

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples addressed this as it noted: "The profile of mental disorders among Aboriginal people is primarily a by-product of our colonial past with its layered assaults on Aboriginal cultures and personal identities."

Thus the process of identity formation is made even more difficult for Native youth as they experience personal identity crisis in the context of another wider social and cultural one—one experienced by entire communities of people.

A way of life eradicated

Linda Martin, Cree staff person with My People International, also points to the disintegration of traditional Aboriginal cultures. Skills, perspectives, roles and patterns that formerly defined family life are no longer valued or needed, resulting in feelings of meaninglessness.

"Our children suffer most from what's happening to us as a people group," says Martin, "because they have no frame of reference whereby they can understand the social chaos. Therefore, many of our young people live with confusion and with an ongoing sense of being overwhelmed." She calls it a "chain reaction of disintegration."

Martin, taken away from her family and community for schooling, knows personally the effects of being taken into a foreign social environment, being stripped of her cultural and social identity and being expected to acclimatize to strange people, their cultures, ways of thinking and histories. The journey to wholeness has been a long and often painful one for her—and for many, many Native people.

Glen Coulthard of the University of Alberta has shown how "disintegrating culture" and suicidal behaviour among Aboriginal people are connected. "Native communities that have retained some of their historical traditions have lower suicide rates," he says.

What's more, "Communities that have been less seriously affected by the government's paternal goals of 'protection, civiliz[ation] and assimilation' … tend to have lower suicide rates."

Of course there is more that can be said. Many young people who "attempt" are from broken homes, bearing the pain and emptiness of missing one or both parental relationships. But at minimum it must be said that Native suicide is a complex issue involving spiritual, emotional and physical factors that are rooted in complex histories including experiences of European contact, mission, government social policy and human misunderstanding.

What does the Bible have to say to help us make sense of this?

The Apostle Paul makes clear that "In Christ all the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form" and that "in Him [we] are made complete" (Colossians 2:9-10). Completion implies a beginning point—a point that, we can assume from these verses, God has established for all people. That beginning point is the socio-cultural, gender and family of origin identity in which we have been created. As the author of Psalm 139 makes us aware, this is something which God treasures greatly.

All too often in Native reality, however, this idea of respecting our "socio-cultural beginning point" has been disregarded. Instead, solutions to "the Indian problem," whether social or spiritual and undertaken by governments or churches, have been predicated on the eradication or replacement of Native identity.

Native leaders today understand this well. "Our young people must be anchored to their historic roots and identity while simultaneously encouraged to live it in the contemporary world," says Vincent Yellow Old Woman, Siksika First Nation tribal elder and leader. "It's true we must learn to live in a changed world but we must live in it according to our traditions, our values and not someone else's. Otherwise we are no longer a people. Our ancestors would not be pleased with that."

What's being done?

In many places in Canada First Nations leaders have been scrambling to address what appears at times to be a suicide pandemic. Programs have sprung up all over the map that have met with varying degrees of success—some traditionally based, some government initiated and some religiously based.

Young people have repeatedly spoken of evil spirits urging them to kill themselves…

One example of a promising Christian approach involves Linda Martin and her husband Rick. Their current work began in September 2005 when many Native leaders in Northern Ontario, at wits end to know what to do in the wake of a suicide per week since May of that year, called for help.

The Nishnawbe Aski Nation covers two-thirds of northern Ontario. It includes 52 communities, often isolated due to lack of access, with a population of 30,000 Cree-, Ojibwa- and Oji/Cree-speaking people. It had tried community awareness programs, focused suicide prevention programs and attempts at reintegration of life through traditionally expressed spirituality—all appeared to have failed.

The Martins together with four other Native Christians responded to the call and met with the tribal political leadership to pray, examine the Scriptures for answers and plan a response. The request was straightforward: create an intervention founded on biblical, Christian teaching and spiritual beliefs.

These political leaders, not all professing Christians themselves, realized that some aspects of the suicide phenomenon required intervention in ways deeper than the government can go. For instance, young people have repeatedly spoken of evil spirits visiting them, urging them to kill themselves—a difficult situation to address with "secular" approaches. Furthermore it is a situation often not easily addressed by traditional spiritual beliefs in communities of mixed spiritual expression.

Currently the Martins together with others are addressing the crisis one family and one community at a time. They assist those for whom suicide has been a recent tragic experience to see a way through to personal wholeness while simultaneously equipping individuals and groups to intervene before the next suicide occurs. It can be a slow, painful process when two or three youth take their lives within a few weeks of one another in a community of only several hundred people.

What you can do

So what is the answer to the suicide issue? While the subject is complex, there are some things that, when undertaken consistently move us in the right direction.

First, let's not assume there is a formulaic response. Not all Native people are alike either in culture or in their resort to suicide. Dr. Michael Chandler, a psychologist and researcher at the University of British Columbia, has demonstrated that "suicide rates in a band are usually linked to several factors, among them the presence of self-government, land claims, an education system within the community, health services, police and fire services, cultural facilities, women in government and child protection services."

Where six of these eight factors are present the society is functional and moving in a healthy direction, cultural roots are evident and being clearly transmitted to youth, suicide rates are negligible.

Second, we must ensure we pursue relational and not programmatic approaches. Chandler makes clear that any generic strategy "being visited on the whole of the Aboriginal community is not going to be successful. Instead money should be invested directly into communities so they can help themselves."

This may seem obvious as an appropriate strategy for any community regardless of culture or context. After all, who should know best what health and well-being looks like—and how to get there—than the people who live there? Indeed, most effective community development theory and practice are rooted in this very principle. Unfortunately, Native people are the exception—all too often they are dealt with as if they were one monolithic group.

Third, in our ministry and discipleship we must treat Native people—any people for that matter—as a people created in God's image, living within a culture that, while not perfect, does provide a context in which faith can be lived acceptably before God.

Many experts agree that this "critically contextual approach" to mission and ministry works more effectively—but it takes more time. The "manufacturing" approaches taken to ministry in the past, approaches that seemed to be more concerned with responses and outcomes ("making Christians" not creating disciples, civilizing not evangelizing), did not engage in mission this way. A contextual approach ran counter to the thinking of the time and would not have achieved the goal of assimilating Native Peoples to the wider Canadian society—a goal that drove Church and government alike. To a relationally driven, communal people this was devastating. Perhaps, in a world driven by the business mottos of bigger, better, more and faster—and related church perceptions of "success"—need to be revisited once again! What are our objectives as we engage with God in God's mission?

Fourth, we must intentionally affirm the worth of Native Peoples and their cultures, not simply as people who look nice in feathers and beads but in the values and perspectives that they offer to the Church and wider world. Here you can be involved by making very real connections and developing relationships with Native Peoples in your region. You'll be surprised what you learn together.

Sadly, it is often not the Church or Christian people who lead the way here. In many instances our perspectives are coloured and distance is created from our concern over "preferential treatment," unfair "racially based" policies and budget expenditures, and the "constant social drain" that Native people present to them. We need to look beyond policy and get connected with real people.

Let's also be more open to the very real possibility that the historic beliefs, values and practices of Native people might just address themselves to the needs of the post-modern, post-Christian, post-denominational world in which the Church finds itself.

Many leaders in the emerging church think so. Check out the writings of Brian McLaren and David Fitch, two of the more well-known proponents of the "emergent conversation." Or see the writings of Native leaders like Richard Twiss, author of One Church Many Tribes (Regal Books, 2000), and Randy Woodley, author of Living in Color: Embracing God's Passion for Diversity (Revell, 2001).

Finally, we must realize that Jesus came to renew all things, not only the human soul. When this truth becomes operative in our mission and ministry it will affirm the cultural identity of Native Peoples as also having been made in the image of God, their cultures and values requiring neither greater nor lesser focus as we look to their redemption. They will be evaluated in their own right in light of Scripture, not in light of other cultures' values filtered through the Scriptures.

According to many who labour in ministry among our peoples, the struggle for individual and social identity is a root problem. That's where the Church can help—offering holistic programs of evangelism and discipleship that neither ignore the need nor describe it as unnecessary, unbiblical and even spiritually evil.

Perhaps we could ask how Native young people in the next generations might contribute to their own and the wider society in more effective ways if their identity were not so much an epithet as a thing of honour. What would contemporary Native community life look like if these and other social crises in Native communities were effectively addressed? These and other questions surrounding the resolution of identity ought to be at the heart of Canadian and Christian concern. Our failure to address them means the likelihood of one more generation of Native people consigned to the evils of suicide and other socially maladaptive behaviours.

Terry LeBlanc of Evansburg, Alberta, is Mi'kmaq/Acadian. He directs My People International and serves on the Aboriginal Ministries Council of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

Originally published in Faith Today, November/December 2006.




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