There is a Buddhist proverb which says that the lotus flower blooms most beautifully from the deepest and thickest mud. On the evening of Sept. 19 hundreds of Rankinmiut gathered to hold a candlelit healing circle following a tragic death in the community.
Losing one person to suicide is hard enough, but the last couple of months have been particularly hard on the Kivalliq with at least six tragic deaths in the region since the beginning of August, four of which have been in Rankin Inlet.
The deaths have taken such a toll on the community that Health Minister Lorne Kusugak took the unusual step of acknowledging the situation during a members statement on Sept. 16, remarking that “his fellow residents of Rankin Inlet are going through the hardest of hardships.”
Talking about suicide is normally something that is considered taboo in the newspaper industry. The logic being that by giving attention to the deaths only encourages more people to contemplate it as an option.
This principle was reinforced by a Rankin Inlet Elder when I reached out to them for advice on the issue last week: “The more we hear and learn about it and the more we think about it, the more we put it into the minds of the people.”
While there is wisdom in the silent approach, there is something to be said about being able to talk about our feelings openly and to make sure that people know they are loved unconditionally without fear or shame.
The truth is that in communities where everyone knows each other and so many people are related, these tragedies are not usually much of a secret. This has become even less so in the age of social media, where hundreds of well-meaning condolences can be blasted out with nothing more than a couple taps on a screen.
The Elder I spoke with, who asked not to be named, explained to me that the phenomenon of self-inflicted death has “been around a long time among our people.”
“When we were on the land we didn’t hear about it even though it was happening. In the 50s and 60s people started seeing it more when we started coming into communities.”
That is not to say that this is something that should be normalized. Suicide doesn’t have to be a fact of life in Nunavut. Quite the opposite!
As the Elder pointed out to me, any discussion on the issue should not dwell on the negative but rather focus on solutions.
Invoking the metaphor of two wolves which we all have inside of us – one bad and one good – they asked: “Which wolf is the one who wins?” After a brief pause they responded, “The one you feed.”
Providing greater resources for addiction treatment, reducing the access to illegal drugs and increasing recreational and wellness programming is fundamental to improving mental health in our communities. Those initiatives, whether funding the grassroots or building them in-house, are the government’s responsibility and it’s about time we saw real action instead of more empty promises.
But healing will also require building up the bonds that keep families together.
“We’re blaming alcohol, we’re blaming outside sources, but it’s not the true root of the problem. Why are they drinking so much, why are they doing drugs so much? The problem lies within our own families,” the Elder told me.
“One of the big problems is that they don’t think anyone loves them anymore.”
With the first ever National Day of Truth and Reconciliation approaching, there is no denying the brutal impact that the trauma of residential schools have had on Inuit. But for all the hardships that survivors have endured, the power of love, community and family to overcome trauma remains immutable.
The Catholic Church has inflicted enough harm on the world to prevent me from being a religious man.
But I pray that Kivalliqmiut can find a way to feed the loving wolves we all harbour deep inside so that we may blossom like the most beautiful flowers the Arctic tundra has ever seen.