The Government of the Northwest Territories expressed a will to support more on-the-land programs as it channelled federal funding into the fight against suicide.

$500,000 in federal money, representing the last of three payments originally agreed in 2016, will be used to help community governments and other organizations maintain seven existing mental wellness programs across the territory.

Territorial health minister Glen Abernethy called for more projects to come forward as he addressed reporters on Wednesday, saying: “We think we can take on a couple more.”

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Northwest Territories MP Michael McLeod, at the same news conference, called suicide “a critical issue” for his constituents, adding: “We must act, and we must build on what we’re working on.”

In 2015, the latest year for which the NWT Bureau of Statistics holds data, nine people died by suicide – around one in every 25 deaths recorded that year. Every year since 2007, at least six deaths in the territory have been attributed to suicide.

“In the NWT, suicide rates are very high in the smaller and more remote communities, so we’re trying to focus where some of the more specific problems are,” said Abernethy.

“In the Beaufort Delta, our rates are about the same as you would see in Nunavut, which are some of the highest in the country.”

‘So excited’

The seven projects receiving federal funding represent a range of land-based approaches to improving the mental health of youth across the territory’s communities.

They include a coming-of-age leadership and resiliency camp run by Yellowknife’s St Patrick’s High School; on-the-land programming in Fort Providence, Fort Resolution, and Fort Good Hope; a cultural camp provided by the Wood’s Homes children’s mental health charity; a Tłı̨chǫ Government food harvesting program for out-of-work youth; and a healing program in Wekweètì.

Other projects are part-funded through a separate $1.2 million pot of territorial government funding routed through community governments for similar initiatives.

“People want options,” said Abernethy. “There is no single model that’s going to meet anybody’s needs – some people want facility-based, some want cultural-based, some want a combination of the two. That’s why there are so many options here.”

The territory admits there is no established evaluation mechanism with which to gauge how effectively these programs are supporting youth mental health. Funding decisions are currently based on anecdotal evidence.

“People who have attended talk positively about their experiences on these programs,” said Abernethy. “We’re working to develop an evaluation mechanism for these programs.

“The interaction between youth and Elders has been incredibly valuable. Getting out of the community and onto the land is, for many people, a spiritual experience that gives them the option to talk, in a healthy way, about some of the challenges they are facing.

“A young man showed me all these snares he had set up, and he was so excited when he was showing me these things. His excitement to get back out on the land was infectious.”

Negotiations

The federal government’s three-year agreement from 2016 to 2019 totalled $1.25 million in mental wellness funding for the NWT. Ottawa has so far not committed to extending that deal beyond the current financial year, but McLeod and Abernethy say negotiations will begin soon.

“Studies have demonstrated that the programs that work the best are the ones that involve people from the communities, usually Elders, and allow the youth to become very proud of their heritage, their history, and develop skills at the same time,” said McLeod.

“Every year we are seeing applications increase, more and more people want to take part. There is a focus on languages that is welcomed by the youth and those who are struggling to retain their language.

“A lot of youth are developing the skill of learning how to clean and dress animals and prepare food. And learning the history of the area, traditional names and words, and sites where their family grew up, is very important to the youth.”