First Nations (status and non-status peoples), the Inuit and Métis are collectively referred to as Indigenous people.

Indigenous people in Canada have some of the highest suicide rates in the world, but this is not true for all Indigenous peoples. There are also many communities that have very low rates of suicide.

Historically, suicide was a very rare occurrence amongst First Nations and Inuit (Kirmayer, 2007). It was only after contact with Europeans and the subsequent effects of colonialism that suicide became prevalent.


  • In the 2006 Census, a total of 1,172,790 people in Canada identified themselves as Indigenous people.
  • A National Household Survey in 2011 showed that 1,400,685 people in Canada identified themselves as Indigenous persons. This represents 4.3% of the national population. The 2011 statistics show an Indigenous population increase of 20.1% between 2006 and 2011, compared with 5.2% for the non-Indigenous population (Statistics Canada, 2013).
  • Suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading causes of death for First Nations youth and adults up to 44 years of age.
  • Approximately 55% of all Indigenous people are under 25 years of age.
  • The suicide rate for First Nations male youth (age 15-24) is 126 per 100,000 compared to 24 per 100,000 for non-Indigenous male youth.
  • For First Nations females, the suicide rate is 35 per 100,000 compared to 5 per 100,000 for non-Indigenous females (Health Canada, 2010).
  • Suicide rates for Inuit youth are among the highest in the world, at 11 times the national average.

Legacies of Colonization

The effects of colonization and governmental policies of forced assimilation continue to cause acculturative stress and marginalization amongst the Indigenous population.  These effects can be passed on from one generation to the next; this is referred to as intergenerational trauma. They can ultimately manifest in behaviours which may place individuals at risk for suicide (see risk factors below).

Some of the effects of colonization include:

  • Residential schools experiences
  • Forced adoptions and foster care
  • Forced relocation from one community to another
  • Denial of existence as people (as in the case of the Métis Nation) (Kirmayer, 2007)

Consequences of these legacies include: an eradication of culture, an erosion of traditional values and a loss of traditional family stability (Elias, 2012).

Acculturative stress often occurs when an individual is trying to adjust to a new culture. This stress can manifest through the victim’s feelings of marginality, depression, anxiety, and identity confusion (Leach, 2006).

Indigenous - M3 Residential Schools Girls in White

Suicide Contagion & Clusters

(excerpt from iE10: Suicide Contagion and Clusters)

Many members of Native reserves are closely related and share the same social predicaments. The impact of a single suicide is often felt by the entire community. Because of the closeness of the residents, there is a greater risk of a contagion effect leading to a cluster of suicides (Kirmayer, 2007).

These can also manifest as “echo” clusters which refer to clusters that occur over an extended time period after the original cluster (Masecar, 2009). A single death by suicide can resonate for months to come, with individuals taking their own lives in imitation of a prior suicide.

It is important to note, however, that not all Indigenous communities have experienced suicide clusters or have regular incidents of suicide.  In communities where there is a strong sense of culture, community ownership, and other protective factors, it is believed that there are much lower rates of suicide and sometimes none at all (Kirmayer, 2007).

Unfortunately, on some reserves where these protective factors have not been strongly developed, the situation can sometimes be severe.

The wounds of historical social and economic upheaval caused by colonization, residential schools, and the “sixties scoop” (and into the seventies where children were taken off the reserves and fostered to mostly Caucasian families) continue to fester in many areas today. This is often called “acculturative stress” and inhibits the growth of a healthy environment. The young will be increasingly vulnerable as Indigenous are the fastest growing ethnic group in Canada.

Protective Factors

There are certain social conditions which can help create a positive and healthy environment for both a community and its individual members. Chandler and Lalonde (1998) have identified six protective factors which they found in Indigenous communities that had low rates of suicide. These are identified as “cultural continuity” and include:

  • Self-government
  • Land control
  • Control over education
  • Command Police and Fire services
  • Health services
  • Control of cultural activities (Chandler, 2005; CSP, 2003)

They also found lower rates of suicide in communities where the indigenous language was widely spoken (Chandler, 2005). A study of various bands in British Columbia indicated that those bands with higher levels of language knowledge (more than 50%) had fewer suicides than those bands with lower levels.

Haida Girl holding paddle
Image by United Nations

Risk Factors

The following are risk factors which can place an individual at risk for suicide:

  • Depression and other mental illnesses
  • Alcohol and drug dependency
  • Hopelessness
  • Low self-esteem
  • Sexual abuse and violence
  • Parental loss
  • Homelessness (Elias, 2012)

The Urban Indigenous Experience

Indigenous people who live in cities and towns are an often overlooked segment of our overall urban population.

54% of First Nations (both status and non-status), Inuit and Metis now live in cities and towns
(Place, 2012).


Many Indigenous people who spend their time living between reserves and cities regard themselves as “boundary spanners” (Letkemann, 2004). For some, this separation from the home community can often heighten feelings of cultural isolation and cause further family instability. Others, however, may adapt to urban life easily.

Urban Indigenous people face challenges to their cultural identity which include discrimination and racism, exclusion from opportunities for self-determination and difficulty finding culturally appropriate services. A loss of connection with the land, contact with Elders, and engagement in spiritual ceremonies may contribute to the effects of marginalization and isolation.

One consequence for those who live in cities is possible homelessness – Indigenous people are greatly overrepresented in the urban homeless population.  Another is disproportionate incarceration: although they comprise only 3% of the Canadian population, Indigenous people make up 22% of those sentenced to custody in the provincial or federal correctional systems (Environics, 2010).


Suicide affects the youth in Indigenous communities more than any other demographic. Suicide occurs roughly 5 to 6 times more often among Indigenous youth than non-Indigenous youth in Canada.

Community and Spirituality

Suicide prevention is best undertaken by community members, friends and family who understand the social context of the community. Strategies must be formulated in response to local cultural meanings and practices (Wexler, 2012).

Some prevention strategies include:

  • Community-based approaches
  • Gatekeeper training
  • School-based suicide prevention programs
  • Means of suicide restriction
  • Peer support programs (Kirmayer, 2007)

Community Wellness Strategies: prevention should be the responsibility of the entire community (CSP, 2003).

Spirituality has been recognized by many as a key part of wholeness. In western approaches to mental health, the Indigenous concept of well-being and spiritual wellness is largely absent.

Spirituality is a key part of wholeness.

Northern Lights
Image by Leo Vaha

Traditional healing practices place healers and community members at the heart of the healing process, and Western practitioners supplement by acting as secondary helpers. This is a more culturally sensitive approach that can be integrated into a diverse range of Canadian Indigenous communities (Wortzman, 2009).

An example of a community-based approach utilizing cultural and spiritual methods as healing practices can be found in Alkalki Lake, British Columbia. Dances, ceremonies, and spiritual practices, such as pow-wows, sweetgrass ceremonies, sweat lodges, and drumming circles were used by traditional healers to try and treat the substance-abuse issues of some of its members. The guiding philosophy of this treatment program was: “Culture is treatment, and all healing is spiritual”.  The community reduced its alcoholism rate from 95% to 5% in ten years (McCormick, 2000).

Ceremony at Bella Bella, BC
Image by Kris Krug


Centre for Suicide Prevention. (2003). Suicide among Canada’s Indigenous peoples. Alert #52.

Chandler, M. and Lalonde, C. (2008). Cultural Continuity as a protective factor against suicide in First Nations youth. Horizons, 10(1):68-72.

Elias, B., et al. (2012).Trauma and suicide behaviour histories among a Canadian indigenous population: An empirical exploration of the potential role of Canada’s residential school system. Social Science & Medicine. 74(10), 1560-1569.

Environics Institute. (2010). Urban Indigenous peoples study: Main report. Toronto, ON.: Environics Institue. Retrieved from

Hallett, D., Chandler, M. and Lalonde, C. (2007). Indigenous language knowledge and youth suicide. Cognitive Development, 22(1):392-399.

Health Canada. (2010). Acting on what we know: Preventing youth suicide in First Nations. Retrieved from

Kirmayer, L., et al. (2007). Suicide among Indigenous people in Canada.Ottawa, ON.: Indigenous Healing Foundation.

Leach, M. (2006). Cultural diversity and suicide: Ethinic, religious, gender and sexual orientation perspectives. New York: Hawthorn Press. Letkemann, P. (2004). First Nations Urban Migration and the Importance of “Urban Nomads” in Canadian Plains Cities: A Perspective from the Streets. Canadian Journal of Urban Research, 13(1):241-256.

McCormick, R. (2000). Indigenous traditions in the treatment of substance abuse. Canadian Journal of Counselling, 34(1):25-32.

Olson, R. (2013). iE10: Suicide contagion and clusters. iE:infoExchange.

Place, Jessica. (2012). The health of Indigenous people living in urban areas. Prince George, B.C.: National Collaborating Centre for Indigenous Health. Retrieved from

Statistics Canada.(2013). Indigenous Peoples in Canada: First Nations People, Métis and Inuit. National Household Survey, 2011. Retrieved from

Wexler, L. and Gone, J.(2012).Culturally responsive suicide prevention in indigenous communities: Unexamined assumptions and new possibilities. American Journal of Public Health. 102(5), 800-806.

Wortzman, R. (2009). Mental health promotion as a prevention and healing tool for issues of youth suicide in Canadian Indigenous communities. First Peoples Child & Family Review. 4(1):20-27.

Related Links

Miyupimaatisiiuwin Wellness Curriculum (MWC)
MWC is a Canadian school-based suicide prevention program developed in 2000 to promote a wide range of healthy lifestyle choices to counteract the long-term incidence of suicide, as well as substance abuse and violence. It focuses on “wellness” and targets children from kindergarten to Grade 8. This holistic program emphasizes Indigenous culture and was developed with the Cree community to encourage active participation of the family and community.

River of Life: Online Course about Indigenous Youth Suicide
The River of Life course discusses strategies designed to strengthen the protective factors of Indigenous youth at risk. The material focuses on providing participants who work with Indigenous youth the knowledge to respond to those at risk of suicide.