Death rate among Inuit children soars

A new study paints a bleak picture of life — and death — among children and teenagers living in the Inuit Nunangat, the four Arctic regions that make up the Inuit homelands.

TORONTO — A new study paints a bleak picture of life — and death — among children and teenagers living in the Inuit Nunangat, the four Arctic regions that make up the Inuit homelands.

Children and teens growing up in the Nunangat are roughly five times more likely to die than their counterparts in the rest of Canada.

They are 11 times more likely to succumb to an infectious or parasitic disease and twice as likely to be killed by a non-communicable one. Their risk of dying from an injury is nearly 11 times higher than children and teenagers in the rest of the country.

But the biggest driver behind the staggeringly higher death rate among Inuit children and teens is suicide.

The report, from Statistics Canada’s health analysis division, found that the suicide rate among children and teens in the Inuit homelands was 30 times that of youth in the rest of Canada during the five-year period from 2004 to 2008.

In fact, at a time when the youth suicide rate was declining in the rest of Canada, it was climbing in the Inuit Nunangat, the report shows.

The analysts who gathered the data for Statistics Canada can’t speak to the factors behind the important numbers they compiled. They can explain the numbers, but cannot opine on the story they tell.

But a researcher who has spent years studying the problem of suicide among the people of the Canadian Arctic said the statistics point to one of the biggest public health problem of the North.

“It’s huge. It’s absolutely huge. There’s no way to downplay the impact that suicide has on life here. And it’s a big priority of many people — including the (Nunavut) government and the Inuit organization NTI — to make a difference,” Jack Hicks said in an interview from Iqaluit.

“Imagine if Prince Edward Island or Saskatchewan over the course of a generation … suddenly had their youth suicide rate rise to 30 times the national average. What would that do to the society?”

Hicks is a former suicide prevention adviser for the Nunavut government and was a member of the working group that developed the territory’s suicide prevention strategy. He is currently completing his PhD thesis on the social determinants of youth suicide in Nunavut.