Fredericton – Why Indigenous people are more likely to commit suicide was the topic of a book launched on Sept. 26th at Conserver House in Fredericton.
Dying to Please You: Indigenous Suicide in Contemporary Canada is Roland Chrisjohn’s latest book published by Theytus Books. Co-authored with Shaunessy McKay and Andrea Smith, the book takes a critical look at how Indigenous suicide is understood, and advocates for a response that focuses on broader social issues rather than on the individual.
In studying what social scientists and psychologists are saying about Indigenous suicide, Chrisjohn, Onyota’a:ka of the Haudenausaunee and professor of Native Studies at St. Thomas University and McKay, a Mi’kmaq woman from Eel Ground First Nation and a graduate student at the University of New Brunswick, assert that such disciplines are asking the wrong questions about suicide.
The authors explain, “Suicidology has chosen to reformulate the question: ‘Why are Indians killing themselves at such high rates?’ as ‘What’s wrong with Indians that makes them want to kill themselves at such high rates?’”
Chrisjohn and McKay describe the implications of this question through “the Broken Indian Model,” which represents a popular but problematic view of Indigenous suicide.
“The [Broken Indian] model presumes that deficiencies or defects or shortcomings in us are responsible for our acts of suicide.”
The authors discuss how this view of Indigenous suicide labels Indigenous persons as deficient, and “naturally” at-risk of suicide, while ignoring historical and current social issues faced by Indigenous peoples, which harm their health and well-being.
Delving into some theory, Chrisjohn and McKay contrast the views of sociological bigwigs Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx on the topic of suicide. On suicide, Durkheim looks mostly to the individual and how they are affected by anomie. Durkheim’s anomie is explained as a breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community that result in an individual losing moral guidance and feeling fragmented from society. In contrast, Marx focuses on how people are alienated and oppressed under capitalism.
Chrisjohn and McKay find Marx’s analysis more useful in explaining higher rates of suicide in Indigenous communities, linking Canada’s historical and ongoing colonial and assimilation policies to suicide.
“None of the existing explanations [of Indigenous suicide] alleviate the situation by acting or suggesting action against the forces of oppression [emphasis added]; they don’t even recognize them,” write Chrisjohn and McKay.
Before the authors read excerpts from their book, the audience watched the 1995 National Film Board film, Duncan Campbell Scott: The Poet and the Indians. Scott was a Canadian poet and senior civil servant with the Department of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932. The film’s description of Scott as a key player in many of Canada’s assimilation policies towards Indigenous peoples was an appropriate backdrop for Chrisjohn and McKay’s discussion of Indigenous suicide as part of larger social issues, historical and current.
Chrisjohn and McKay established the urgency of the suicide crisis – and the Canadian Federal Government’s awareness of the issue – by pointing to a 1977 graph taken from the Department of Indian Affairs, which revealed that Indigenous people were 3 to 10 times more likely to commit suicide than non-Indigenous people of the same age groups.
The Canadian Federal Department of Health reaffirms the prevalence of this issue today, stating that suicide rates amongst First Nations youth are 5 to 7 times higher than those of non-First Nations youth. The Department of Health also states that suicide rates among Inuit youth are 11 times higher than the national average and among the highest in the world.
For Chrisjohn and McKay, the suicide statistics beg a change of approach in Indigenous suicide intervention.
Chrisjohn, a founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in Canada, lost a friend and fellow founder of AIM to suicide decades ago. Chrisjohn, who holds a doctorate in psychology from Western University, became disillusioned with psychological approaches to addressing Indigenous suicide after working for six years in crisis intervention services for Indigenous people during the 1980s in Toronto.
In referring to his criticisms of psychologists working in the field of suicidology, Chrisjohn states that, “Models of Indian suicide are individualistic, relying on supposed internal characteristics instead of looking at…social, economic, and political forces impinging on Aboriginal Peoples.”
Instead, Chrisjohn and McKay present an alternative: “We invite suicidologists to stop peering inwardly, start looking at the world around us, and see what’s happening to us all.”
Chrisjohn and McKay include what they call a partial list to make their point that Indigenous people of Canada are not the only oppressed peoples in the world experiencing a suicidal crisis: the Guarani Indians of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia; unemployed young males in Greece; dispossessed farmers in Chennai; veterans of the U. S. army who served in the Middle East; South Koreans; women with illegitimate pregnancies in India; rape victims; Sri Lankan refugees; Virginians; American farmers; unemployed British youth; the elderly in Greece; Pennsylvanian prisoners; Chinese factory workers; Canadian first-responders; and more.
For Chrisjohn and McKay, a collective step back that takes the time to “think, discuss, understand, share, then act” on what they call the “capitalism-alienation-oppression suicide progression” is key.
“We have no doubt that the most positive ANTI-SUICIDE [authors’ emphasis] program for Indigenous peoples that has been seen in Canada in the last few years is the Idle No More Movement, Indians behaving like Indians, which at the same time was perhaps the scariest thing seen by the government.”
Chrisjohn quoted early twentieth century Irish Revolutionary Michael Collins on how the Irish should respond to British oppression: “We have a weapon more powerful than any in the whole arsenal of the British Empire. And that weapon is our refusal… Our only weapon is our refusal.”
With that, Chrisjohn and McKay ended (or perhaps began) an important discussion on Indigenous suicide by calling for a new understanding of its causes, as well as advocating for structural social change, informed activism, and a refusal to die.