Whale Cove has Nunavut’s lowest suicide rate—here’s why
"If someone starts to feel really low and is not themselves, we notice right away"
Whale Cove is home to fewer than 500 people on the western coast of Hudson Bay, but the community, known as Tikirarjuaq, is doing something unique in Nunavut. It is keeping people alive.
And in a territory with the highest suicide rate in Canada, that’s news.
Based on recent figures released by the Nunavut coroner’s office, from 1999 to 2016, a total of 526 people died by suicide across the territory—that’s more than the entire population of Whale Cove.
But if you break down those figures by community, using the 2016 Statistics Canada census population data, and look at the rate of suicides per 1,000 people from 1999 to 2016, Whale Cove has a rate of 4.5—the lowest in Nunavut. There have been only two suicides in Whale Cove from 1999 to 2016.
It’s true that Whale Cove is small, but consider the hamlet with the highest suicide rate: Qikiqtarjuaq, population 598. That Baffin hamlet had 17 suicides since 1999 for a rate of 28.4 per 1,000.
And just to show that size doesn’t matter, Nunavut’s third largest community—Whale Cove’s southern neighbour of Arviat—has the third lowest suicide rate.
Arviat, population 2,657, has a rate of 8.6 suicide deaths per 1,000, right after Sanikiluaq, population 882, which has the second lowest rate of 6.8.
The Government of Nunavut has called suicide a “crisis” among its people.
Meanwhile, the people of Whale Cove go about their lives in relative peace and contentment. How do they do it? We decided to ask some people in Whale Cove to share their secrets to a healthy community.
Most of their comments came down to this: Whale Cove is a tight-knit community where people lead traditional lives and take care of each other.
Sounds simple, but it’s not.
It means people hunt and fish and camp together. It means parents volunteer to coach and mentor kids, that the door’s always open and no one is turned away. It means elders have ample opportunity to tell stories and interact with youth and that youth learn to respect their elders and feel pride in those stories.
George Kuksuk, the minister of Culture and Heritage and MLA for Arviat North-Whale Cove, is from Arviat, but has spent a lot of time in Whale Cove.
He said most of the people who live in Whale Cove are related to the original families relocated there by the Canadian government in 1957-58 when the Kivalliq caribou herds disappeared and people in outpost camps were starving to death.
They know each other well and they have a sense of interdependence, he said.
“They have their own problems like any other community and I’ve been to a lot of communities, but Whale Cove is strong. They are like a big family with very limited resources,” Kuksuk said. “People pull together and work together.”
Perhaps that’s because of their shared history of struggle, loss and starting over.
Agnes Turner was born on the land 70 years ago near Garry Lake. The camp was abandoned in 1958 after 24 people had died of hunger. Turner’s family was relocated to Baker Lake and they moved to Whale Cove in 1964.
Turner suffered countless traumas common to Inuit of her generation: residential school abuse, alcohol addiction, having a child with fetal alcohol syndrome and giving up another for adoption, and being told that she wouldn’t amount to much.
“Back then, people told us we Inuit were good for nothing. That we were all failures and pagans,” she said. “For a while, I was so angry about life. That’s when I started fighting to become a teacher.”
She knows what it’s like to feel depressed and unloved. One day, after hearing her mother say for years that she wished Turner had never been born, Turner decided she agreed. She was considering taking her own life when her sister-in-law came to visit and talked her out of it.
“She burst out crying and said, ‘No way. That’s the wrong action.’ She held my arms and said, ‘You’re very important,’” Turner said. “It really got to me. She saved me.”
Though she eventually graduated high school and got a teacher’s certificate, Turner spent most of her life as a government liaison and part-time social worker. Then, after she had left the workforce to help raise an infant grandson, she decided to go back to work and returned to her first love: education.
She got a job as a language specialist at Whale Cove’s Inuglak School and at the start of last year—for the first time ever—Turner got her own Grade 3 and 4 classroom.
When asked why she thought Tikirarjuaq had such a low suicide rate, she mentioned many things from fishing derbies to sports teams and how people spend time on the land, “to feel nature’s therapy.”
And just like her sister-in-law dropping by just when she needed help, people check in on each other, to make sure they’re OK.
Alana Kuksuk, George’s daughter, is a mother of four, married to man from Whale Cove and has lived there nearly 18 years. She is a clerk-interpreter at the health centre, the hamlet’s coroner and has taken Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training or ASIST.
She talked about elders such as Turner and Lewis Voisey who share stories of how they made the transition from outpost camps to modern living and how important those stories are to teach youth their common history of courage and resilience.
“No one’s a stranger around here. I think that has a great big impact and one of the biggest reasons why Whale Cove has such a low rate of suicide,” said Alana.
Alana, who coaches junior girls volleyball, said sports also play a big role. Every two years, tiny Whale Cove sends a contingent of athletes to the Arctic Winter Games—eight went to Nuuk with Team Nunavut last year.
“It’s a great thing to be open to the younger generation and to give them a chance to talk,” she said.
“Our kids are our future and we don’t want to see them ending their lives by suicide. Give them the support so that they can do so much in their lives. What we struggle with is not forever. It always comes to pass. Stay strong.”
Inuglak School principal Kurt Donald said it’s not like Whale Cove is trouble-free. Among the 128 or so regular school attenders, he knows some struggle with hopelessness and depression.
Within a couple months of starting the job last fall, one student had disclosed suicidal thoughts to him. He counselled the student and said that as a principal, he was now obliged to contact the student’s guardians and others to alert them. Since then, he and the student have remained close, Donald said.
A second student came to Donald later, the principal said, triggering the same response.
It’s difficult sometimes, to offer stability and consistency at the school when teacher staff turnover is so high, Donald added. The key, as Alana Kuksuk said, is to provide a safe place and an open door.
“If they have someone where they know they trust and can go to, I think that plays a huge part,” said Donald.
“I ask kids, ‘Do you feel comfortable here?’ And they say, ‘School’s fun,’ or ‘Some of the courses are boring but I don’t mind coming.’ I told them at the start, if anything’s going wonky in your life and you want someone to come to, come to my office.”
Inuglak also has a community liaison who visits homes when kids are repeatedly absent and the school is unable to reach the family. People look out for each other in Whale Cove, he says.
“There’s no kid that has no place to go. There’s no homeless. It’s not part of the culture here. If you see someone in need, you lend a helping hand.”
For Turner, helping others and giving advice comes naturally. She tells people to stay active, do sports, go out and enjoy the peace of the land. And for those who are jobless or broken-hearted, she tells them to find someone they admire and pay them a visit, to get inspired.
“When something big happens in the community, we become one big family,” Turner said. “And if someone starts to feel really low and is not themselves, we notice right away.”
If you are in need of support or have thoughts of suicide, and feel you have no one in your community to turn to, you can always call the Kamatsiaqtut 24-hour free Help Line at 1-800-265-3333 (Inuktitut, English) or the residential school crisis line, also toll-free, at 1-866-925-4419 (Inuktitut, English, French).
The numbers in this story were derived by using a standard formula for calculating rate per thousand. We used Nunavut coroner’s statistics showing the total number of deaths by suicides for each Nunavut community from 1999 to 2016. We divided those numbers by community population, taken from the 2016 Statistics Canada Census data, and then multiplied that figure by 1,000.
Jack Hicks, who has done extensive research on the topic of northern suicide, disputes this formula and suggests the rates we calculated are incorrect. He submitted a full statistical report on death by suicide by Nunavut Inuit to Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. in 2015. You can find that report here.