Identity formation, youth suicide and First Nations:
Lalonde, C. E., & Chandler, M. J., (in press). Culture, Selves, and Time: Theories of Personal Persistence in Native and non-Native Youth. In C. Lalonde, C. Lightfoot, and M. Chandler (Eds.). Alternative Constructions of Self and Mind. Mahwah, NJ: Laurence Erlbaum & Associates. firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com
Chandler, M. J., & Lalonde, C. E. (in press). Transferring Whose Knowledge? Exchanging Whose Best Practices?: On Knowing About Indigenous Knowledge and Aboriginal Suicide. To appear in D. Beavon and J. White (Eds.) Aboriginal Policy Research. London, ON: Althouse Press.
Chandler, M. J., Lalonde, C. E., & Teucher, U. (in press). Culture, continuity, and the limits of narrativity: A comparison of the self-narratives of Native and Non-Native youth. In C. Daiute and C. Lightfoot (Eds.), Narrative Analysis: Studying the Development of Individuals in Society. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Chandler, M. J., Lalonde, C. E., Sokol, B., & Hallett, D. (2003). Personal Persistence, Identity Development, and Suicide: A Study of Native and Non-Native North American Adolescents. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, Vol. 68, No. 2,Serial No. 273.
Lalonde, C.E. (2003). Counting the costs of failures of personal and cultural continuity. Human Development, 46, 137-144.
Chandler, M.J. & Lalonde, C.E., & Sokol, B. (2000). Continuities of Selfhood in the Face of Radical Developmental and Cultural Change. In L. Nucci, G. Saxe, E. Turiel (eds.), Culture, Thought, and Development (pp. 65-84). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Chandler, M.J. & Lalonde, C.E. (1998). Cultural Continuity as a hedge against suicide in Canada’s First Nations. Transcultural Psychiatry, 35(2), 193-211.
Chandler, M.J. & Lalonde, C.E. (1996b). Folk theories of mind and self: A cross-cultural study of suicide in native and non-native groups. In A. Marchetti & O. Sempio (Eds.), The development of theories of mind and the construction of cognitive abilities, Milano: Raffaello Cortina.
Dr. Michael Chandler is a cognitive development psychologist, Dept. of Psychology, University of British Columbia. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak about the issues of suicide and youth and particularly how they relate to First Nations individuals and communities. I believe he has some powerful words to share with us. The messages that flow from his fascinating and timely research are extremely relevant to what is taking place in Aboriginal communities today. Doctor Chandler has agreed to provide this material to Turtle Island Native Network, hopeful it will help the people on their journey forward.
I am providing this brief introduction to identify up front what I heard during his presentation, and have read as the key messages in his findings. Obviously I do not speak on his behalf, nor am I qualified to provide scientific interpretation of the research findings.However, the report that follows, does provide comments, conclusions and key points that I am able to use in summary form for the purposes of this introduction.
By way of comment . . . Elders and others have known for years, that if Aboriginal Peoples could hold on to their culture they could survive. Despite attempts by non-aboriginals to destroy our nations, the people have managed to survive. Secretly, some people held on to their beliefs, even practiced them by clandestine means. They are to be honoured for their efforts.
Today, many communities struggle to hold on to the almost bare threads
of culture. The languages, stories, music, dancing, traditions are being
restored despite protests from some non-aboriginals who continue to call
for assimilation with all its inherent destruction for Aboriginal Peoples.
Is it worth the effort, the struggle, the fight to restore culture? Doctor
Chandler's research testfies to the benefits of Aboriginal culture.
....Tehaliwaskenhas, October 17th, 1998
This research report, which is all about self-continuity and its role as a protective factor against suicide, comes in three parts. The first of these is made up out of our efforts to get clear about the axial notions of personal and cultural continuity, and why our own search for ways of understanding suicide among First Nations youth has come to turn upon them. The central theory-laden idea developed here is that, because it is constitutive of what it means to have or be a self to somehow count oneself as continuous in time, anyone whose identity is undermined by radical personal and cultural change is put at special risk to suicide for the reason that they lose those future commitments that are necessary to guarantee appropriate care and concern for their own well-being. It is for just such reasons that adolescents and young adults—who are living through moments of especially dramatic change—constitute such a high risk group. This generalized period of increased risk during adolescence can be made even more acute, we argue, within communities that lack a concomitant sense of cultural continuity that might otherwise support the efforts of young persons to develop more adequate self-continuity warranting practices. Part Two, which is told as a cautionary tale against all loose generalizations about aboriginal society as a whole, works to demonstrate that, while certain indigenous or First Nations groups do in fact suffer dramatically elevated suicide rates, it is also true that such rates vary dramatically across British Columbia’s nearly 200 aboriginal groups. Some communities, we demonstrate, show rates some 800 times the national average, while in others suicide is essentially unknown. Finally, in Part Three, we go on to demonstrate that these variable incidence rates are strongly associated with the degree to which BC’s 196 bands are engaged in community practices that are interpreted here as markers of a collective effort to rehabilitate and vouchsafe the cultural continuity of these groups. The clear message that is sent by all of this evidence is that the communities that have taken active steps to preserve and rehabilitate their own cultures are also those communities in which youth suicide rates are dramatically lower.
Manuscript submitted to: Transcultural Psychiatry
Cultural Continuity as a Hedge Against Suicide in Canada’s First Nations
This research report, which is all about self-continuity and its role as a protective factor against suicide, comes in three parts. One of these, told as a cautionary tale against all loose generalizations about aboriginal society as a whole, works to make the point that, while certain indigenous or First Nations groups do suffer rates of youth suicide that are among the highest of any culturally identifiable groups in the world (Kirmayer, 1994), it is also true that the incidence of such suicides varies dramatically across British Columbia’s nearly 200 aboriginal groups. Some communities, we demonstrate, show rates some 800 times the national average, while in others suicide is essentially unknown. A second, and arguably the best part, goes on to demonstrate that these variable incidence rates are strongly associated with the degree to which BC’s 196 bands are engaged in community practices that are interpreted here as markers of a collective effort to rehabilitate and vouchsafe the cultural continuity of these groups. The remaining part, and the one with which we mean to begin, is made up out of our efforts to get clear with you about the axial notions of personal and cultural continuity, and how our search for some way of understanding youth suicide has come to turn upon them.
Because it is far from obvious why the study of young people’s beliefs about personal persistence, or self-continuity, might recommend itself as a vehicle for getting closer to an understanding of how cultural continuity might serve as a protective factor against suicide, the balance of these introductory remarks are given over to linking up these disparate matters. In miniature, the argument, to be more carefully unfolded in the paragraphs to follow, goes roughly like this. At least as it is taught in standard Euro-American intellectual history (e.g., Cassirer, 1923; Habermas, 1991), any followable conception of self or personhood necessarily presupposes some summing across the inevitable changes that time has in store, all for the reason that any account of selfhood that lacked provisions for linking each of us up with the persons we have once been, and are now in the process of becoming, would prove fundamentally nonsensical.
However constitutive self-continuity may be for our ordinary adult conceptions of persons, children appear not to be born into the world with their own especially high minded understanding of how such arguments in favor of self-continuity are meant to work. Rather, they tend instead to proceed only gradually and fitfully toward first one and then another increasingly mature may of warranting their own continuous identity. En route toward the construction of some acceptably grown-up way of thinking about personal persistence, children and youth regularly abandon the outgrown skins of their own still earlier ways of finding sameness within change and so, until newly refitted with some next-generation means of connecting the future to the past, are often temporarily left without a proper sense of care and concern for the person they are otherwise in the process of becoming. Under such transitional circumstances, when self-continuity has temporarily gone missing, suicide newly becomes a “live option” for the reason that the dead person in question would scarcely count as them, wonderful them. In light of all of this, and with respect to all of the prospective circumstances that stand out as especially likely to aggravate the problem of maintaining a sense of self-continuity, two difficulties, in particular, stand out as especially troublesome. One of these is made up out of all those often dramatic adolescent changes that make up the transition to adulthood. The other is more circumstantial, and arises whenever one’s culture, out of which the particulars of one’s identity are necessarily composed, is also thrown into serious disarray. In either case the grounds upon which a coherent sense of self is ordinarily made to rest are cut away, life is made cheap, and the prospect of one’s own death risks becoming a matter of indifference. This, at least, is the double barreled set of expectations that have brought us to the hypothesis that the steps being taken by certain First Nations communities to protect and rehabilitate the continuity of their own culture might be shown to work as protective factors against the current epidemic of suicide among native youth.
At least four things naturally follow from what has been said so far, all of which receive empirical support, either directly from the new data to be reported here, or from the larger program of research of which the present study is a part. One of these is that adolescents and young adults, who are classically understood to be undergoing a degree of personal change that seriously threatens their sense of self-continuity, should evidence a dramatically elevated rate of suicide and suicidal behavior. The second is that individual youth who are otherwise marked by a breakdown in their efforts to achieve a sense of personal continuity should be dramatically over-represented among those known to have made serious attempts on their own lives. Third, First Nations persons, who are generally acknowledged to have suffered a train of crippling assaults upon the continuity of their cultural lives should, as a group, be marked by typically high suicide rates. Finally, if lack of cultural continuity is indeed a risk factor for suicide, then First Nations communities that are hard about the process of preserving and restoring a sense of their own cultural continuity should demonstrate lower rates of youth suicide than do counterpart communities that are not engaged in such rehabilitative measures. The first and third of these propositions (i.e., those concerned with the expectation that suicide rates will be dramatically higher for young persons, and for those whose culture is under siege) have so frequently been demonstrated to be true that they now constitute old news. The remainder (i.e., those holding out the expectations that suicidal adolescents will prove to be uniquely marked by an inability to sustain a sense of self-continuity; and that First Nations groups characterized by community efforts to achieve a greater sense of cultural continuity will show reduced suicide rates) are largely untested, and form the subject of our own ongoing research efforts.
Before turning to the particulars of these data, however, three matters, already briefly touched upon, require being set out more clearly. First, more needs saying if we are to end up being clear about what is meant here by the notion of self-continuity. Second, because it is not widely known, the already available evidence linking failures in self-continuity and self-destructive behavior needs to be reviewed. Finally, some better case needs to be made in support of our contention that self and cultural continuity are necessarily bound up together.
For philosophers, then, and for others officially charged with the task of working up generic accounts of human functioning, it all seems clear enough: any claim to selfhood that does not include some measure of self-continuity is fundamentally nonsensical (Luckman, 1976). What about putative owners of selves like you, like us? If losing track of one’s self-continuity is to somehow figure as a reason in any chain of mental events leading to a decision to take one’s own life, then it would also need to be experienced, one might suppose, as a personal, as well as a professional, necessity. Although, as Lifton (1974) points out, self-continuity may not always be an ordinary part of one’s moment-by-moment conscious awareness, it is, nevertheless, clear enough that such convictions do appear to underlie and support the tone and quality of one’s self-awareness. This is especially so, it is widely supposed, during crisis points and at times of transition when threats to one’s continuity are most in evidence(Barclay & Smith, 1990). On such occasions—when, for example, we are brought up short by seeing an old photograph of ourselves, or by the recognition that we have just behaved in a way that was once deeply out of character—all of us, including (as we will go on to show) young adolescents, do evidently feel the need to scramble for some discursive means with which to argumentatively redeem the implicit claim that, through thick and thin, we somehow go on being self-same. That is, all appearances to the contrary aside, we go on being committed to the proposition that the seemingly discontinuous bits that together form the archipelago of our changing selves are somehow either structurally equivalent, or otherwise functionally interchangeable.
If, as the foregoing points hopefully make clear, each of us is under a primary definitional obligation to somehow relentlessly work out some justificatory means of successfully warranting our belief in our own personal persistence, then the prospect is raised that, as young persons otherwise develop more workable conceptions of their own identity, their ways of warranting their convictions about self-continuity might also change apace. At least, this has served as a guiding prospect that helped set in motion our own search for possible age-graded changes in the ways that children and adolescents ordinarily think about their own and other people’s personal persistence. So far, we and our co-workers (Ball & Chandler, 1989; Chandler & Ball, 1989; Chandler, Boyes, Ball & Hala, 1986; Chandler & Lalonde, 1994; Chandler & Lalonde, in press) have taken up such matters with upwards of 200 young persons. While this is not the proper place for any detailed recounting of the actual methods and procedures followed in these several studies, the broad outlines of our findings are clear enough to be safely synopsized. When apparent disjunctures in their self-presentations were pointed out, our young subjects of every age quickly came forward with what they took to be good reasons as to why such evident changes could be discounted in ways that left untouched what they judged to be the underpinning continuities of their lives. Middle school children, for example, believed themselves to be self-same because of the simple existence of one or more personal attributes (e.g., same name, same fingerprints, etc.) that were thought to stand apart from time. Older adolescents, by contrast, more often found commonalties either: a) by hypothesizing underpinning genotypic personality characteristics thought to be capable of bridging the merely phenotypic changes they judged to have taken place in their more outward appearances; or b) by seeing functional relations thought to make their own pasts the “causes” of which their present identities were the “effect.”
At least so far, these efforts have led us to distinguish what amounts to a half dozen highly age-graded ways in which the young subjects of our earlier research commonly reasoned aloud about their own personal persistence through time, and differently defend the conviction that they necessarily extend forward and backward in time in ways that leave them responsible for their own pasts and committed to their own futures. Setting aside the details about how all of these distinctive ways of thinking about self-continuity can be ordered in terms of their formal adequacy, or shown to co-vary with other developmental accomplishments, the essential point to be made here is that, with exceptionless regularity, all of these young subjects were committed to the necessary importance of, and found some conceptual means of succeeding at, the task of weaving a continuous thread through the various episodes of their own and others’ lives. As the following paragraphs are meant to make clear, what makes this otherwise uniform achievement somehow deserving of special attention here is that, with almost the same regularity, adolescents who were also actively suicidal ended up distinguishing themselves by utterly failing in their efforts to find any personally persuasive means of warranting their own self-continuity in time.
The foregoing account of the changing ways that rank-and-file young persons ordinarily succeed in warranting their own self-continuity could be substantially correct without, at the same time, actually making any real contribution to our understanding of adolescent suicidal behaviors in general, or the extraordinarily high rate of youth suicide in certain First Nations communities in particular. Among the several reasons to suppose otherwise, two in particular stand out as especially relevant here. One of these arises out of the good prospects that problems in self-continuity hold out for making conceptual sense out of the otherwise paradoxical fact that, with all of life’s potential sweetness full upon their lips, it is adolescents who, more than any other age group, are quickest to take steps to end their own lives. The other is more straightforwardly empirical, and turns on the existence of a substantial body of new evidence demonstrating that suicidal adolescents are in fact uniquely characterized by a thoroughgoing inability to warrant their own continuity in time.
The general problem of finding some objective way of accounting for the fact that adolescents engage in self-destructive behaviors at rates variously described as some 20 to 200 times greater than any other age group (Hendin, 1982; Petzel & Cline, 1978) is that no one other than another adolescent could ever be persuaded that “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” actually do rain down more heavily on teenagers than they do upon the rest of us. What does appear to be the case, however, is that the sharply accelerating rate of developmental change routinely understood to be the fate of adolescents, and to be the author of their own proverbial difficulties in forming a coherent sense of personal identity, does in fact confront them with more than their fair share of difficulties in regularly re-engineering new ways of counting themselves as somehow persistent through time. That is, if navigating the usual course of identity development necessarily requires tacking one’s way back and forth between one qualitatively different self-continuity warranting strategy and the next, and if, while momentarily “between stays,” one is at special risk to temporarily going adrift by losing any workable sense of self-continuity, then the prospect arises that, adolescents, more than most, will also end up losing all proper care and concern about their own future well-being. It is, we propose, during these periods of selflessness that the momentary self-destructive impulses, often triggered by life’s routine hardships, become emptied of their ordinary personal significance, and that suicide suddenly becomes an actionable possibility. In view of all that has just been said, our own general explanation for the remarkably elevated rates of suicidal behavior characteristic of the adolescent period is roughly as follows. Momentarily plagued by what we often later judge to be trivial problems, few of us remain entirely free of occasional suicidal thoughts(Ross, 1985; Rubenstein, Heeren, Housman, Rubin & Stechler, 1988). All such transient self-destructive impulses notwithstanding, few of us ever seriously act on such inclinations, primarily because we understand that the person who would be hurt or lost would be us—wonderful us. Suicide, when it really becomes a live option, does so, we propose, primarily for those who have lost a sense of connectedness to their own future. Finally, it is adolescents, we suggest, who are most repeatedly put at risk to such hazards, all for the reason that the normal course of their identity development naturally serves to careen them from one self-continuity crisis to another. The potential merits of this account are seen to lie in the facts that it means to succeed: a) by linking suicidal behaviors to hazardous but transitory developmental processes, rather than fixed suicidal traits, thus rendering the often ephemeral nature of suicidal behavior more understandable; b) by tying self-destructive urges to what are themselves often short-lived transitions in the usual course of identity development, it helps to explain the fact that such self-destructive urges are most often acted upon during times of rapid developmental change; and c) by finding a way to understand how it could be that suicidal persons actually succeed in circumventing those usual inhibitions that otherwise operate to block the possibility of self-harm.
Emptied out of all of its concrete particulars, the conceptual account of suicidal behaviors just outlined in the preceding pages works by demonstrating how it is that radical changes to the hardware of one’s personal identity (e.g., dramatic changes in physical appearance, personality organization, etc.) can overload existing cognitive mechanisms responsible for the maintenance of a sense of self-continuity, resulting in an image of the future that no longer counts as one’s own. On this account adolescents, for example, are put in double jeopardy, both because their lives are often a kaleidoscope of radical change, and because their developing self-continuity warranting strategies meant to deal with such matters often prove inadequate to the task. While all of this makes for a workable way of understanding the dramatic increase in suicidal behavior known to occur during the adolescent years, there is nothing about this explanatory account that necessarily restricts its applicability to those personal changes brought on by the turmoil of the teenage years. Rather, the stuff of which potential continuities and discontinuities are made tends to arrive from any and all quarters, including the cultural quarter.
Like other potential sources of continuity and discontinuity, culture too appears to be a double-edged sword. At least when they tended to outlive the people who populated them, cultures presumably held out the potential of offering a more “mythic” time-frame that could be relied on to lend a certain age to things. Even now, when cultures seemingly wink in and out of existence, they still appear to sometimes work in the service of self-continuity by holding our noses to a grindstone of social responsibilities and cultural promises in ways that can serve to help backstop us during our own more fitful moments of developmental transition. At least this is possible when they are working well. In other times and places, cultures appear to be more a part of the problem than the solution. Certainly this appears to be the case with the various cultures that make up BC’s First Nations. Here, in addition to all those factors that ordinarily work to undermine cultures and promote their “natural” deaths, the massed forces of government have also been hard at work actively disassembling aboriginal culture as an explicit matter of official policy. If simple job or marital instability is enough to heighten one’s risk to suicide (Maris, 1981; Sakinofsky & Roberts, 1985), then what are the prospects for self-harm when one’s whole culture is officially condemned, when one’s religion is criminalized, one’s language is forbidden, and one’s right to rear and educate one’s children suspended?
There is no one, it must be supposed, who seriously doubts that all of this officially sanctioned savagery is not somehow responsible for the fact that, as a group, First Nations people commit suicide at rates that are, by various estimates (Cooper, Corrado, Karlberg & Pelletier Adams, 1992; Kirmayer, 1994), some 3 to 5 times greater than that of the non-native population. Unfortunately, the certainty ends here. Topping the list of things that are not at all clear is just how it is that the dismal demographics that make up the sociology of most aboriginal people (inadequate income, education, housing, health care, nutrition, etc.) actively turn themselves into those lonely and deeply private reasons that lead some, but surprisingly not most who are similarly afflicted, to intentionally take steps to end their own lives. Although, in other research contexts, we are currently hard about the task of putting to use what we have learned about the inability of certain suicidal adolescents to commit to their own futures, as a guide to finding such answers, epidemiological studies of the present sort are ill-suited to deal with such ultimate questions. What is the proper subject of such studies, and serves as the balance of this paper, is the naming of various risk or protective factors that might distinguish First Nations communities that are marked by high and low suicide rates. Here, as before, our aim has been to selectively focus attention upon those variables that address the problem of self-continuity, this time on a cultural level.
To do this we have chosen to proceed in two steps. Part Two of this account, that immediately follows, begins this process by first struggling to situate each of BC’s 196 First Nations bands along a continuum that distributes those with low and high rates of youth suicide. Part Three, that follows in turn, examines a series of cultural factors that, if present, could potentially serve to help insulate the adolescents and young adults within First Nations communities from the risk of suicide, by working to preserve or rebuild in them a more robust sense of cultural continuity.
Although there is undoubtedly something to be learned about First Nations suicide by roughly comparing the life circumstances of Native and Non-native persons, such benefits are likely to be greatly outweighed by the high costs to credibility of proceeding, against good reason, as though all First Nations communities could be lumped together and treated as interchangeable elements in some simple monolithic culture. Let alone the whole of Canada, British Columbia itself occupies a land mass comparable in size to all of Western Europe. The indigenous peoples living within this highly divergent and often geographically isolated pattern of eco-systems have spent what is conservatively 10,000 years situating themselves with regard to their own particular chunk of this great natural diversity, becoming in the process everything but the cultural monolith they are often wrongly imagined to be. Instead, different languages, different kinship patterns, different religious beliefs, and different economic practices (to name but a few) have naturally sprung up, making the whole of this province’s First Nations a cultural collective only in the most abstract of statistical senses. While it is perhaps true that the overall rate of suicide for this bricollage of diverse peoples is some 3 to 5 times higher than that for the country as a whole, it is impossible to imagine how this fact could possibly be made to make any real human sense when applied to any given community of First Nations persons. What is obviously needed instead, as a first step toward any real understanding of suicide in the lives of aboriginal people, is some much more fine-grained look that begins by examining the rates of suicide that hold for different self-identified cultural groups.
As it turns out, envisioning such detailed plans proved to be a good deal easier than carrying them out in practice. The kinds of information required have tended to be collected by a patchwork quilt of federal and provincial agencies, employing diverse and non-overlapping measurement strategies, all for the purpose of sorting people into a dizzying array of grab-bag categories of no uniform design. As a result, much of what was needed proved to be scattered about on the floor, neither owned nor seen to be missing by any particular government agency.
What we wanted to know, and wrongly assumed was common knowledge, was just how many young First Nations members of each of BC’s 196 bands had actually killed themselves by some specified means during some recent window of time big enough to compensate for the annual fluctuations that often plague research into suicide and other low incidence events. In addition, for the purposes of Part III to follow, it was also necessary to know as much as we could about the relevant demographics of these same bands, and of the broader population, as they applied to the risk period under study. Here, our interests centered, as will be made clear, on variables that could be broadly construed as having some bearing upon the cultural continuity of the groups in question. The first step in this search pattern was to begin with detailed information on every act of suicide recorded in the province of British Columbia for the years 1987-1992. This information was provided by The Office of the Chief Coroner of British Columbia, and included: age, gender, date of death, cause of death, means of death, and associated factors (alcohol, drug involvement, etc.). This data also permitted each suicide to be identified as either “Native” or “Non-Native.”
Although every attempt was made to ensure the accuracy of these data, two potentially significant sources of error should be acknowledged. First, when there is no clear and compelling reason to regard a given death as suicide, it is typically recorded as accidental, leading to a widely acknowledged underestimation of the true incidence of suicide. For example, single-occupant motor vehicle accidents have been recorded as accidental deaths even when the driver was known to have been suicidal at the time of death. This fact takes on added significance when it is noted that up to one quarter of all accidental deaths are viewed by some experts as actually being suicides(Health-Canada, 1991). Further, because accidental death rates are substantially higher within the First Nations population, the effects of this under-reporting may be especially magnified*. In addition, there are reasons for concern that the general under-reporting of suicide common to all groups may be even more prevalent within certain First Nations communities that feel some need to “manage” a perception of themselves as especially prone to suicide, a practice that would again work to proportionately lower the number of Native suicides reported.
(* Data provided by the BC Ministry of Health indicates that, for the period under study, deaths by what are termed “external causes” (accidents, suicide, homicide) accounted for 27.6% of all First Nations deaths compared to 7.8% of deaths in the total population.)
A second source of error arises from the fact that accurate data on whether or not a person is ‘Native’ or ‘non-Native’ is extraordinarily difficult to collect. At least three independent sources of such information exist: self-declaration, census declaration or government registration, and band membership. First, (although this is obviously problematic in the case of completed suicide), persons can, under usual circumstances, be asked to identify themselves as being of Native ancestry. While there is some evidence that Native Americans are becoming more likely to identify themselves as “Native” for US census purposes (Nagel, 1995), there is no documentation of a comparable trend in Canada, where First Nations have been known, for political reasons, to refuse to participate in census taking.
Whether or not persons considers themselves Native, however, is somewhat independent of whether the Canadian government counts them as Native and enters them in its register as a “Status Indian,” entitled to certain federal benefits. Some Native persons—particularly those living off-reserve—reject this system of registration, resulting in a growing number of young Native persons who have never been registered as “Status Indians,” and who consequently do not figure into estimates of the “Native” population. Finally, each Native band maintains its own record of band membership which may or may not agree with published population estimates based on other counting strategies. Even when each of these possible data sources are consulted, deciding whether a particular suicide was committed by a “Native” person, is rarely a simple matter. To overcome these difficulties, the Office of the Chief Coroner routinely makes use of information provided by the family of the deceased, by social service agencies and police officers involved in the case, as well as data from other provincial government agencies in designating suicides as Native or Non-Native. For present purposes it was these best available, but still problematic designations, provided by the Coroner’s Office, that were used to code persons as either Native or Non-Native.
The population data used to calculate suicide rates in this study were collected from various branches of the federal and provincial government charged with maintaining census information and vital statistics. Basic population data were obtained from Statistics Canada for the Canadian census years 1986 and 1991. The British Columbia Ministry of Health, Division of Vital Statistics provided adjusted provincial population estimates for non-census years. Health and Welfare Canada provided further age-graded Native and Non-Native population figures for British Columbia. Comparative suicide data for the years 1986 to 1990 for the population of British Columbia was provided by The Canadian Centre for Health Information. At our narrowest level of regional analysis, we obtained age-graded population figures concerning First Nation bands and tribal councils using the Indian Registry and Band Governance Database provided by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.
In just the ways alluded to above, each of the governmental agencies responsible for the sources of population data that figure into our analyses also employed their own different classification procedures for identifying persons as “Native.” Our own attempts to obtain accurate data were aided by the results of a special project undertaken by the BC Ministry of Health, Division of Vital Statistics. This project worked to link together data held by the BC Medical Services Plan, Health Canada–Medical Services Branch, and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, in the form of a comprehensive report on aboriginal health that resulted in what are arguably the most accurate Native population figures to date (Burd, 1994). These data were used wherever possible in our analyses.
Because some of BC’s bands contain too few members to support their being singled out for statistical treatment, as a corrective, we have, for certain of our analyses, followed the common practice of categorizing bands with reference to the particular “tribal council” to which they belonged. For the period under study, there existed 29 cultural/political alliances generally known as tribal councils. While some number of these councils are historical in character, reflecting a common language and a shared traditional land base, others are more political in nature, aligning bands that, in the past, belonged to different tribal groupings. Each suicide was classified as belonging to not only a particular band, but also to one or another of these tribal councils using data from provincial (BC Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs) and federal sources (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada).
In a part of the data analyses to follow, attention is focused on First Nations persons arranged, not by band or band council, but rather by language group. In spite of a long history of government suppression of Native language, the First Nations of British Columbia form a remarkably diverse linguistic community representing 16 distinct language families. Classifying suicides by Native linguistic families and language groups was accomplished using data from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, and with the invaluable assistance of a recognized expert in First Nations languages, Dr. Jay Powell, professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia.
Many of the measures to be reported here are obviously influenced to some extent by the size and geographic location of the community. Sparsely populated communities in remote regions of the province, for example, will rarely be able to sustain permanent health care facilities or resident health care providers. In an effort to control for this possibility, separate youth suicide rates were calculated for communities designated as rural, urban, and remote. Furthermore, measures of population density were derived for each band and tribal council by dividing the number of separate dwelling places by the total community population.
In the 5-year period under study, a total of 2,495 deaths were designated by the Office of the Chief Coroner as being deaths by suicide. This represents an annual rate of 14.8 suicides per 100,000 persons in the province. A total of 220 suicides during this same period were judged by the Coroner’s Office to have been committed by “Native” persons, resulting in an annual rate of 45.2 suicides per 100,000. For all young persons aged 15-24 years, the overall annual suicide rate during this period was 24.0, and for young Native persons the rate was 108.4 per 100,000. These rates are shown in graphic form below (see Figure 1).
Figure 1 : Suicide Rates in British Columbia (1987-1992)
In order to compensate for differences in the relative proportion of young persons within each population, age standardized mortality rates for 15-24-year-olds were calculated separately for the Native and Non-Native groups. Age standardized mortality rates (ASMR) allow for more accurate comparisons between groups with different age structures and reflect what the mortality rates would have been if the population in question had the same proportion of persons in various age groups as does the ‘standard’ population. In this case, suicide rates for both the Native and Non-Native youth of BC have been standardized to the 1991 Canadian census population. The use of these standardized rates in relation to the Native population is particularly important given that the proportion of Native youth is disproportionately large in comparison to the proportion of youth in the Non-Native population. These adjusted rates, for the period 1987–1992, are shown in graphic form in Figure 2.
Figure 2: Native and Non-Native Youth Suicide Rates (ASMR, 1987-1992)
Although it needs to be recognized that raw suicide rates can often be misleading when calculated for small populations, youth suicide rates were, nevertheless, collected for the 196 individual Native bands under study. The resulting rates ranged from 0 to 3636.4 per 100,000. When these communities were collapsed into comparatively larger groupings according to their membership in one of the 29 tribal councils within the province, rates varied again from a low of zero (true for 6 tribal councils) to a high of 633 suicides per 100,000. Because the youth population within certain of these separate groups is relatively small, and because such rates can misinform, Figure 3, which displays suicide rate by tribal council, omits the names of these councils out of our own wish to avoid identifying individual communities. Those 6 tribal councils without recorded suicide are also omitted from this figure.
Figure 3: Native Youth Suicide Rate by Tribal Council
When bands were classified according to language group, the observed youth suicide rate again varied quite dramatically, ranging from 0 to 208.3 suicides per 100,000. The 11 language groups with rates above zero are arrayed (again by number rather than name) in Figure 4 below.
Figure 4: Native Youth Suicide Rate by Language Group
Our measure of population density resulted in a mean of 3.84 persons per dwelling structure (range=1.25–8.33). The computed correlation between the youth suicide rate and population density was essentially zero: r = -0.05.
First Nations youth known to have committed suicide during the study period were classified in terms of whether their band of origin was either “urban,” “rural,” or “remote” using a categorization scheme developed by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada which combines weighted measures of both population and geography. The categories of urban and rural differ in ways that you might expect, measured largely with reference to the size of the surrounding population. Remote communities are those which either cannot be accessed by road (but only by air or water), or, when roads exist, where year round access is problematic. The rates of youth suicide for communities of these 3 types were as follows: Urban = 147.4; Rural = 95.1, Remote = 78.2. Because the “urban” category included many communities that are located at the periphery of major metropolitan areas, without literally being an immediate part of a true city-scape, an attempt was made to further distinguish those bands that existed “on the apron” of a city, from those more fully inside a true metropolitan area. Although the data are incomplete, the figures available suggest that the bands located within truly urban communities actually had substantially lower rates of suicide than did those for which the “lights of the city” were only on the horizon.
Two things are meant to be evident from the data summarized above. The first is that when the suicides of First Nations youth known to have occurred during the study period are arranged in terms of their tribal communities of origin, it becomes startlingly clear that no legitimate generalizations about the overall suicide rate of BC’s First Nations are possible. For over half of the communities studied (111 of 196) there were no known suicides during the targeted 5-year period, while the remainder contains communities which suffer rates of youth suicide some 500 to 800 times the national average. Obviously, if there is something about the lives of certain First Nations communities that is conducive to, or serves as a protective factor against suicide, it cannot be something that is equally true for all First Nations people. In short, whoever it might be that once thought it proper to offer up loose generalizations about suicide and Native status is shown here to be wrong on their face.
The second point to be made is really a codicil to be attached to the first. Because many of BC’s Native bands are small, and because within such communities even a single suicide can have a dramatic effect upon rates that are commonly calculated as a ratio of incidence to a base of 10,000 or 100,000, the possibility exists that the variability in suicide rate by band, in which we are putting so much store, is actually no more than a statistical artifact being driven by the coincidental placement of a real but small number of suicides within a set of particularly small communities. Several things speak against any such dismissive story actually being true, all of which turn upon the alternative ways of collapsing these data already described above. The categorization of bands in terms of their placement along a dimension of increasing urbanization also counts as a demonstration of intra-band variability, as does the fact that major differences in suicide rates also characterize the 16 different language communities that cut across the provinces’ various bands. Finally, collapsing 196 bands into the 29 different tribal councils that serve to federate them also obviously has the effect of substantially increasing the size of the populations being considered, yet does so without introducing any appreciable change in the overall picture. The conclusion that these several facts are meant to support is that the dramatically different rates of youth suicide that characterize these First Nations are not artifactual, but are representative instead of a real fact in the world that holds out the promise of helping in our efforts to better understand what it might be about life in certain Native communities that is conducive to suicide, or serves as protective factor against it. The search for such factors is the central business to be reported in Part III that immediately follows.
The entire program of research of which the present epidemiological study is a part, has been driven by the theory-laden assumption that the problem in understanding suicidal behaviors is not one of appreciating why it might occur to people to end their own lives, but rather why it is, given the likelihood that such impulses tend to be a dime-a-dozen, most people, most of the time, end up choosing life. The short answer, we have suggested, is that because it is constitutive of what it means to have or be a self to somehow count oneself as continuous in time, we end up showing appropriate care and concern for our own well-being precisely because we feel a commitment to the future self that we are en route to becoming. By these lights, people end up being at special risk to suicide whenever they are unable, for whatever reason, to successfully count themselves as continuous. Difficulties in warranting one’s own self-continuity potentially arise from several quarters. Quite apart from whether they are or are not members of Canada’s First Nations, young people, we have proposed, are at heightened risk to suicide for the double-barreled reason that they are both: a) still in the process of acquiring the full compliment of ways used by more mature adults to find sameness within difference; and b) because many of the fixities of their lives are in the process of being radically altered by the sweeping changes that regularly mark the adolescent period. While, as we have suggested, all this may be sufficient to account for the elevated suicide rates known to characterize adolescents and young adults, and to help pick out which particular adolescents are most likely to personally manifest these risks, it does not, without further extension, also explain the additional burden of risk that Part II of this report has shown to be visited upon the young members of certain First Nations bands. What we have offered as a way of accounting for these wildly variable levels of risk, and the hypothesis that this third and final part of our report is meant to test, is that for some, but not other, First Nations youth, their culture can serve as a source of continuity capable of supplying them with otherwise missing ways of understanding themselves to be connected to their own past and building future. If this is true, then it ought to prove possible to identify within certain First Nations communities various dimensions of cultural continuity that are otherwise missing in other communities that have much higher suicide rates. The balance of this section describes our efforts to identify such potential markers of cultural continuity and to test their efficacy as protective factors against youth suicide.
If one were somehow free to work out in advance what might optimally count as ways of indexing cultural continuity and then go out and carefully apply these by systematically measuring this culture or that, then the task at hand would have been much easier than it proved to be. In the far less than perfect world in which we were obliged to operate, two factors in particular especially complicated what was already a difficult task. One of these was that, rather than having the luxury of identifying and measuring potential marker variables of our own choice, we were reduced to picking through the kinds of information routinely collected by various government agencies in the hopes of finding variables that could, after the fact, serve as proxies for what might ultimately count as measures of cultural continuity. The second fact of life that added to the difficulty of our task is that, as already indicated, the cultural life of the First Nations of BC has been so undermined by government policies and practices explicitly conceived as ways of systematically rooting out all traces of aboriginal culture that much of what remains is not so much continuous cultural life, as an attempt to reconstruct it after the fact. As such, our inclusion criteria needed to be expanded to include whatever evidence was there to be found of efforts on the part of communities to preserve or rebuild or reconstruct their culture by wrenching its remnants out of the control of federal and provincial government agencies.
In the end, and without further apologies or excuses, we settled upon a small handful of variables that were generally available and, in our view, could be counted as markers of attempted cultural rehabilitation. These included: a) evidence that particular bands had taken steps to secure aboriginal title to their traditional lands; b) evidence of having taken back from government agencies certain rights of self-government; evidence of having secured some degree of community control over c) educational services; d) police and fire protection services; e) and health delivery services; and finally, f) evidence of having established within their communities certain officially recognized “cultural facilities” meant to serve as a means of helping to preserve and enrich their cultural lives. Each of these proposed marker variables is listed out and further specified below. By hypothesis, it was anticipated that, to the extent that each of these “protective factors” was present in a given community, some quanta of cultural continuity would be added in place, and some reduction in that communities’ overall suicide rate would be enjoyed.
Although a federal-provincial process of lands claims negotiation is currently underway in which all First Nations are meant to participate, bands differ in the extent to which they were involved in pursuing land claims prior to the establishment of this province-wide settlement process. With the assistance of the Federal Treaty Negotiations Office and the BC Treaty Commission, we obtained up-to-date data on the status of land claims negotiations for all Native groups in the province. On the basis of these data, each of BC’s First Nations communities were classified as having taken, or not taken, early steps to actively secure title to traditional lands.
The Self-Government classification recognized those few bands that, irrespective of having begun their land claims efforts early or late, were nevertheless especially successful in their negotiations with federal and provincial governments in having further established their right in law to a large measure of economic and political independence within their traditional territory.
Communities differed widely in terms of the arrangements made with local and provincial education authorities for the purpose of schooling their children. In the 1980s, changes were made to the various federal and provincial laws concerning the funding of education services to Native children residing on reserves. These changes included provisions that allowed individual bands to exercise some control over education funding through education agreements negotiated with local school districts. While the details of these individual agreements were not easily available, one measurable effect of this process could be had by calculating the percentage of community youth who attended band administered schools. Data derived from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada were used to divide communities into those in which the majority of students either did or did not attend a band school.
Police & Fire Services
Data concerning band control of police and fire protection services were compiled from a number of sources. For smaller Native communities that are located at some considerable distance from major population centers, fire protection services are often controlled by the band by reason of geography. In other instances, the band will have the option of utilizing the services of a fire department located in a nearby non-native community. Control over these services was measured largely in terms of community ownership of fire fighting equipment. Although general policing services outside of large metropolitan areas in British Columbia are provided by the federally controlled Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Native communities in BC have, in varying degrees, adopted local community-based law enforcement programs. Data on these local efforts, provided by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, permitted bands to be classified as having or not having substantial control over their police and fire protection services.
Although efforts are currently underway at the federal level to fully transfer control of health services to individual bands, large differences continue to exist in the extent to which health care services are managed by Native communities. At the time our data were collected, communities could be rough-sorted into those that exercised some direct measure of control (provided funding for permanent health care providers within the community), and those that had little or no such control (temporary clinics and ‘fly-in’ care providers, or services rendered outside the community). These data were provided by the BC Ministry of Health and by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.
Community profile data from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and information obtained directly from individual band offices was used to calculate the number of communal facilities located in each community. A community was said to contain “cultural facilities” if a single facility was specifically designated for cultural use either in centrally held government records, or, if the existence of such a facility was confirmed by officials contacted within the community.
Summing Across Cultural Factors
A final data reduction step involved simply counting up the number of markers that were present in each community. Each community was then assigned a score from 0 to 6 and a final set of youth suicide rates were calculated for these 6 groupings.
Although just over 12% of all Native youth (2,201 of 17,902) reside in communities that enjoy some measure of self-government, this factor appears to provide the greatest protective value with an estimated 102.8 fewer suicides per 100,000 youth within communities that have attained self-government against those that have not (18.2 vs. 121.0 suicides per 100,000). Results for this and other cultural factors are shown in Figure 5.
While the majority of youth suicides (50 of 97, or 51.5%), and the majority of the youth population (64.3%) are to be found within communities marked by long standing efforts to exert control over their traditional land base, the rate of suicide within these communities is substantially lower: 86.8 vs. 147.3 suicides per 100,000.
Similarly, while just 21.8% of the youth population live in communities in which a majority of children are known to attend band controlled schools, only 11.3% of all youth suicides occur in such communities, the difference in suicide rates between communities that do and do not have such educational systems in place is substantial: 71.1 vs. 116.2.
A slight minority of the youth population (46.4%) live within communities that have some measure of control the provision of health care services and, as expected, an even smaller percentage of youth suicides (38.1) occur in such communities, resulting in comparative rates of 89.0 and 125.1.
The percentage of suicides within communities that contain cultural facilities was lower (56.7) than the proportion of the population that reside in such communities (61.7) resulting in lower overall suicide rates: 99.4 vs. 128.7.
Police & Fire Services
Finally, communities that control police and fire services contain 62.1% of all Native youth, but account for only 56.7% of all youth suicides, resulting in suicide rates of 99.0 and 123.7.
Figure 5: Youth Suicide Rates by Cultural Continuity Factors.
Summing Across Cultural Factors
To assess the overall effect of these markers of cultural continuity, each community was assigned a single point for each factor present and thus a total score ranging from 0 to 6. The resulting suicide rates that attach to these scores are displayed in Figure 6, and ranged from a high of 137.5 for communities in which none of the factors were present, to zero (no suicides within the 5-year study window) for communities in which all 6 factors were present.
Taken all together, these results are abundantly clear: First Nations communities vary dramatically in the rates of youth suicide that they evidence, and these differences are strongly and clearly influenced by a group of predictor variables or protective factors all meant to index the degree to which these various bands are engaged in community practices that serve the purpose of helping them preserve and restore their Native cultures.
Figure 6: Youth Suicide Rates by Number of Factors Present in the Community
Our aim in the present research report has been to demonstrate that the risk of suicide that is run by First Nations youth is importantly determined by the ways in which they undertake to construct and defend a sense of identity that allows them to survive as continuous or numerically identical persons despite often dramatic individual and cultural change. The evidence in favor of this view has unfolded in three steps, which we now briefly retrace by way of conclusion before going on to describe our own next steps and research plans in following up on what we take to be new and promising findings.
We began by focusing attention on what is presently understood about the place of self-continuity in the normal identity formation process, and by detailing how the thoughts of young persons concerning their own continuous identity ordinarily progress through a common sequence of increasingly adequate self-continuity warranting practices. While we hold out some hope that this normative account of the developmental process in which children come gradually and by degrees to a mature view upon the matter of self-continuity might be of interest to developmentalists of almost any persuasion, nothing about this developmental course is directly concerned with the problem of youth suicide. The link that we have worked to forge hinges on the argument that young persons could, in the usual course of things, find themselves in awkward transitional moments during which they are especially vulnerable to acting upon self-destructive thoughts—a view that finds empirical support in the fact that actively suicidal adolescents are altogether unique in their inability to offer reasons as to why they or anyone else should lay claim to any notion of self-continuity whatever (Chandler & Ball, 1989). Leaving aside, at least for the moment, the potential utility of this methodology for singling out those individual young persons who might be at immediate risk of self-harm, such evidence goes some important distance toward explaining why it is that young persons, whose lives seem so full of promise, are so tragically and disproportionately prone to acts of self-destruction.
With our attention now turned more fully to the problem of youth suicide and the place of the concept of self-continuity in our efforts to understand it, we went on to argue that while all young persons would be expected to encounter moments of heightened risk during transitions from one self-continuity warranting practice to the next, certain groups of young people may find the period of adolescence and young adulthood more dangerous still. This follows, we claimed, for two interrelated reasons. The first of these is simply that, however tenuous our own personal and private grasp on self-continuity might be, it is nevertheless the case that those colleagues, friends and family caught within our immediate social orbit, typically go on treating us as though we continue to hold some firm stake in our own future even when we, ourselves, do not. In moments of private crisis, then, these social and familial ‘ties that bind’ can form a kind of safety net by holding out strong expectations of continuity just when we find ourselves most in need of them. Young persons, who in the ordinary course of things find themselves in just such dangerous moments, will be at still greater risk if the effectiveness of these social ties is somehow diminished. Such reasoning, while perhaps persuasive, and even useful in understanding certain other known socio-demographic correlates of suicide (social isolation, transience, depression), nevertheless quickly threatens to become circular: he killed himself because his friends and family weren’t able to provide him with a proper safety net, she, on the other hand, did not because the safety net held firm.
Our second reason to hold out some hope of using the concept of self-continuity to explain group differences in suicide rates—and specifically cultural differences—lies nearer the heart of the concept itself. That is, while we might spend our time searching out those variables that attend individual differences in the capacity of this or that social group to oblige their members to commit to their own futures, such a pursuit would do little to further our understanding of self-continuity as a psychological variable with any real meaning in the lives of young persons. Instead, we have chosen to raise the stakes by searching at the level of whole cultures. The dangers of setting out to draw cross-cultural comparisons on so sensitive a topic as youth suicide should be obvious to all and require no cataloguing here. What we hope will set this research program apart from what could easily be taken to be yet another in a long series of cultural assaults on aboriginal peoples, is that instead of dwelling on the fact that suicide rates are demonstrably higher within the First Nations culture as a whole, we went on to show: 1) that there is wide variability in the rates of youth suicide across different aboriginal communities; and, 2) that this variability is closely associated with efforts on the part of these communities to preserve and promote a sense of cultural continuity.
The first of these demonstrations, while perhaps not entirely new, nonetheless deserves any emphasis it can be given by its repetition here: the much-publicized higher incidence of suicide within First Nations often works to obscure the fact that suicides do not occur with anything like equal frequency in each and every First Nations community. In the present study, a total of 111 bands, containing just under half of all Native youth experienced no youth suicides at all in a 5-year period. The simple but sovereign truth to be found in this variability in rates is that it cannot be explained with reference to those factors that work to merely distinguish aboriginal from all non-aboriginal people. To be of any real value, any candidate explanation of these findings must offer some means of accounting for both within- as well as between-group variability by presenting followable reasons as to how some First Nations communities have managed to do a remarkably good job of insulating their members from any increased risk of suicide.
Our second set of findings—meant to demonstrate that some good measure of the variability in rates found between Native communities attaches itself to efforts to restore and rebuild a sense of cultural continuity—constitute what we hope is a step in the right direction of searching out variables that not only have some explanatory power, but also admit to some degree of potential for modification or provide opportunities for change. By way of quick reminder, each and every one of the small handful of factors that we selected as somehow constituting tangible evidence of the importance placed on cultural continuity within First Nations communities, proved to be individually associated with a statistically significant reduction in the rate of youth suicide. Taken together, it also proved to be the case that having more of these factors present in the community was decidedly better: the observed 5-year youth suicide rate fell to zero when all six were found to be true of any particular community. Here at least are a half dozen examples from what is undoubtedly a much larger set of cultural factors, the promotion of which may hold some real promise of reducing the epidemic of youth suicide within certain First Nations communities.
What we believe these restorative efforts could accomplish within these cultural communities is not just the strengthening of those family and peer relations that might help shepherd any adolescent from any cultural background across awkward transitional moments in the formation of a mature sense of self-continuity (though clearly they do this too), but, more importantly, such efforts serve to highlight the important connection between self- and cultural continuity. This connection is not simply one in which the trappings of culture might somehow become bound up together in what is seen to form the content of one’s developing notion of self-continuity. What we mean to suggest instead, is that culture helps to define the structural parameters of the problem of self-continuity and so constrains the nature of solutions that will be regarded as adequate or acceptable. That is, it is not only the case that cultures must find some means of preserving themselves in the face of evident historical and contemporary change—that cultural continuity is a problem to be solved at the cultural level—but it must also be the case that any candidate solution to this problem must intersect and influence the form of all parallel solutions offered up to the more personal problem of self-continuity.
Where all of this leaves at least these authors, is with a deep conviction that a better understanding of the problem of suicide in First Nations communities can only be had by constructing some more solid empirical base for our assertion that matters of continuity, both personal and cultural, are inextricably bound together. Toward that end, we have elected to concentrate our current research efforts on the process of identity formation in First Nations youth, and we are presently in the midst of taking concrete steps toward gathering data of just this sort. In brief, we are pursuing two avenues. First, we have set ourselves to work on the necessary background task of translating our current measures of self-continuity into some more culturally sensitive form. This has involved an attempt to both modify our existing procedures for measuring young peoples’ understanding of their own and others’ self-continuity, and to search out fictional narratives drawn from within the oral tradition of the First Nations to replace the Euro-centric narratives currently in use in this measurement approach. Second, we have begun the process of trying to establish just how it is that markers of cultural continuity measured at the level of whole communities, such as land claims litigation or control of health services, could ever work their way into the actual lives of particular adolescents. Here we mean to proceed along two simultaneous fronts, first by gathering more contemporary data on the actual activities that occur within selected communities—activities that more closely match what you or I or anyone would think of as “cultural” activities such as language use, Native curriculum, rites of passage, etc.—and marrying this data with the accounts given by adolescents of the place of these cultural efforts within their own experience. Second, we are engaged in an effort to reconceptualize the possible meanings of self-continuity as they might unfold in the lives of young persons representative of Native and non-native culture.
By most accounts, we are all, to one degree or another, living through a time of dramatic cultural change. However true this might be for rank-and-file Canadian youth, a case can still be made that their culture’s predilection for a more “essentialistic” approach to the common problem of self-continuity, while not without alienating costs of its own, currently works in their favor, by partially insulating them from at least the surface structure of rapid cultural change. That is, if the culturally sanctioned direction of your search for some means of warranting your own personal sense of sameness across time happens to carry you away from the situationally troubled surface, and toward some quieter, more subterranean pool of abstraction where the core of your self is alleged to be found, then count yourself temporarily lucky for being born into a place in which “going deep” may just work better than “going long.”
If, by contrast, you happen to live in a culture, as do contemporary First Nations youth, the fundamental meaning of which is understood to reside in the continuity of its own narrative history, and if your culturally sanctioned ways of thinking about your own self-continuity are similarly prescribed to be narratively based, and, finally, if, after 10,000 years of adaptive success, your culture happened to have been declared “stone aged,” and moribund, and a laughing-stock—that is, if your cultural practices have been criminalized and beaten out of you through generations of residential schools and genocidal approaches to your language and cultural life—then woe be upon you and your chances of declaring your personal existence as having any worthwhile or enduring meaning. This, as it turns out, is precisely what has happened to the culture of every aboriginal group across North America and beyond. Coming to some better appreciation of these deep-running cultural differences is critical to the success of any ongoing effort to better understand and hopefully reverse the trend toward steadily increasing suicide rates among First Nations youth.
Finally, it can be argued that the results of this research undertaking contain the makings of at least two cautionary tales. The first of these is “it’s better to have a theory.” In recent years a great deal of person-power and even more public money has been spent in collecting and sifting through mountains of demographic data in the hopes of finding something, anything, that might improve our feeble understanding of the rash of suicides among First Nations persons in general and First Nations youth in particular. Without being overly disparaging about the results of such efforts, we do take some personal pride in the fact that, armed with only a theory , but no external funding, the present research enterprise managed to get as far as it has.
The second, and last of our cautionary tales concerns the nature of the particular predictor variables that one chooses for study. One thing that, in our judgment, is good about the findings of this study is that the protective factors that were selected and found to be predictive of youth suicide in First Nations communities are “plastic,” insofar as they represent matters over which the communities in question are capable of exercising some measure of control. Is it of any real actionable benefit for First Nations people to be told, for example, that the frequency with which their children undertake to kill themselves varies as a direct function of the degree of poverty into which the community has fallen, or the extent to which their living conditions are sub-standard? If there were some immediate road leading out of such desperate circumstances it would have already have been taken. What is obviously required instead is some real handle on the problem of youth suicide that communities can actually get hold of, and over which they can exercise some real control.
The clear message that is sent by the evidence brought out in this report is that the communities that have taken active steps to preserve and rehabilitate their own cultures are also those communities in which youth suicide rates are dramatically lower. The possibility always remains, of course, that this close relation between community action and youth suicide is not causal, and that both are somehow due to some third thing, we know not what. Because the research required to logically choose between these alternative possibilities could never be done, we are left with our own local version of Pascal’s Wager. First Nations communities could look at the fact that every band in BC that has taken all of the protective steps outlined in this report have a youth suicide rate of zero, whereas all those in which all of these community actions are missing show suicide rates that are best described as “a crying shame,” and still insist that, because “correlation doesn’t equal causation,” nothing should yet be done. Or alternatively, it could be decided that doing all of those things that might only mimic a saving of lives is still better than no action at all. In either case, what this research teaches, is what sorts of actions it would be wise to have in mind.
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