People in South Africa and India are living longer than Inuit in northern Quebec, reports a new health study.
The life expectancy of the Inuit of northern Quebec has dropped by five years since the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, due in large part of an extraordinary rate of suicide among the youth. So says a study carried out by the public health department of the Kativik regional health and social services board.
"the fact that life expectancy isn't increasing is fairly surprising and dramatic. Pretty much around the world when you see development of health services and economic developed, it goes hand-in-hand with hgiehr life expectancy," sid study author Brian Schnach, a reseracher for the heatlh boad in Kuujiuaq.
But if your're a Nunavik Inuk in your late teens, you're nearly 25 times more likely to take your own life than the average Quebecer your age, according to the study. Inuit in Nunavik aged 15 to 19 had an astonishing suicide rate of 480 per 100,000 people between 1989 and 1993, Quebecers the same age had a suicide rate of about 20 per 100,000 in 1991.
In all, 39 Nunavik residents committeed suicide between 1989 and 1993. Spread across the 7,000 residents of the region, that's a rate of 101.8 per 100,000 people, three times higher than the suicide rate for all First Nations in Canada. Quebec's suicide rate is 18.1 per 100,000 - itself one of the highest rates in the world.
In the early 1970s, before the signing of the James Bay Agreement of 1975, the Nunavik life expectancy was 65 years. Today it has dropped to 60 years, lower than South Africa's and equal to that of India, says the study. The average Canadian life expectancy is 77 years.
"The feelings are really deep when you see those figures," said Sheila Watt Cloutier, education resource person at Makivik Corp., which represents the Inuit Nation in Quebec. "It's just an incredible picture."
Watt Cloutier blamed the suicide rate on a widespread feeling of disempowerment caused by European colonialism. She said many Inuit don't have the resources to deal with the dramatic changes in their society over the last 20 years.
"It's the whole issue of independence," she said. "If you just add more police, bigger hospitals, more social services, without really tackling the issue of empowerment of people, it just becomes a big business."
Watt Cloutier believes the institutions governing Inuit must be reformed to deal with the suicide problem.
"Many of these institutions, if not all, have been created for us from the outside,"she said at the World Indigenous Peoples Conference in Australia in December 1993. "These institutions also are dependency-producing rather than liberating. It is no wonder we have become heavily addicted to substances, institutions and processes.
Youth have taken some steps themselves to deal with the problems of forming youth organizations in most of the 14 Inuit communities of Nunavik. But Watt Cloutier said they need help.
"The youth are taking big steps in leaps and bounds to tackle the problems themselves but they have a long way to go. You need leadership to support that. If you don't have that, forget it."
The health study does contain some good news. Eating country food has made Inuit most resistant to heart disease, especially Inuit Elders. Unfortunately this is counteracted by a high smoking rate. The study found Nunavik residents are six times more likely to die of respiratory diseases then Quebecers and almost 50 per cent more likely to die of cancer.
Cutting back on smoking would improve these numbers, said researcher Schnarch.
"The causes (of the falling life expectancy) are most preventable, so there's scope for doing work to improve the situation."