09/12/2011 12:41 EDT | Updated 11/12/2011 05:12 EST

Nunavut aims to stop spreading stain of suicides in the North with new plan

IQALUIT, Nunavut - Even in a town all too familiar with suicide and violence, the news in June was grim: a despondent husband and father had shot himself after taking the lives of his wife and two young daughters.

The body of Sylvain Degrasse, gun by his side, was found in Iqaluit's cemetery at the grave of his sister. She had also committed suicide.

That's the kind of tragedy Nunavut is trying to avoid with a plan released Monday. The suicide rate for Inuit youth in particular is 11 times the national average.

"Now, we actually have the action plan to reduce suicide," said Peter Ma, Nunavut's deputy health minister.

Signed by the territorial government, the RCMP, the territory's main land-claim body and a suicide-prevention group, the long-awaited plan calls for more co-operation between mental health and education professionals as well as improved mental health facilities to help resolve a slow-motion public health disaster.

It suggests that teachers from elementary grades through high school get better training to spot at-risk kids. It calls for more counsellors in remote communities and says Nunavut should have at least some mental health facilities of its own. Currently, anyone needing residential mental health treatment in Nunavut must go south.

It says most of this should happen over the next year or two. But it doesn't say where the money will come from.

"What we're going to do over the next few months is cost it out a bit more," said Ma. "I have to expect that I probably can't get everything I would like."

Suicide — especially among young Inuit, and especially among young Inuit males — has long been one of Nunavut's biggest challenges. Not only does each death mark an individual tragedy, experts say the cumulative toll of dozens of self-inflicted deaths is a spreading stain on Nunavut's whole society.

Out of a population of about 30,000, Nunavut has already suffered 23 suicides this year. From just a handful of self-inflicted deaths throughout the '60s and '70s, an average of 28 Nunavummiut killed themselves every year from 2000-2010.

Still, it wasn't until last fall that the territorial government released a suicide prevention strategy. An implementation plan was promised within 90 days, but it wasn't released until Monday.

The new plan should get all Nunavummiut working together, said Jack Anawak of the land-claim group Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.

"This time, we're really quite serious," said Anawak, who has lost three brothers to suicide. "It will be interesting to see what we can do with the funding that we have."

With little new money to spread around in perennially cash-strapped Nunavut, the plan depends heavily on co-operation between different agencies. Ma said government, aboriginal groups, RCMP, volunteer organizations, churches and even some private companies are now starting to work together.

"Not only do we as partners need to work together, we need to seek out new partnerships," he said.

Still, if Nunavut is to get even one residential mental health treatment facility, some money from Ottawa will likely be needed.

"The partners are aware that we need to have the proper capital in place," Ma said. "At some point, we would like to call the federal government on this."

Ma said federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkak has been supportive in the past, recently extending a grant program intended to help pay for the higher costs of providing health care in the North.

Anawak said the plan is long overdue.

"I really welcome this," he said.

"It's a long time coming. I'm very optimistic and hopeful that finally we're at least getting to first base."

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton

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