Aboriginal leaders warning of mental health cost of climate change
First Nations and Inuit communities are coping with growing despair over climate change, a problem observers are connecting to mental health, social problems.
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It’s mid-February and the ice roads into and out of Deer Lake First Nation still aren’t reliable enough to officially open, a reality that weighs heavily on the minds of residents.
“It’s very late. It’s bad. We want to get our stuff, our supplies, housing materials, fuel. I don’t know if we’ll be able to get it this year (by road),” said chief Roy Dale Meekis. “You feel isolated.”
Anxieties are high in this small Oji-Cree community, located about 700 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay. An unusually warm winter in Ontario’s north — what’s expected to become the new norm in a changing climate — has left the roads unstable and unsafe, and kept local road groomers out of work.
More supplies have to come by air, meaning higher costs for food, diesel fuel, medicines and bottled water in a community that has been under a drinking water advisory since 2001. To reduce demand for fuel, Deer Lake recently installed a 624-panel solar system to power the school. It helps, but doesn’t address the isolation.
“It is a big concern, but what can we do? There’s nothing we can do,” said Meekis.
Deer Lake isn’t alone. Ontario has roughly 3,100 kilometres of ice roads that keep about 30 remote First Nation communities connected to the rest of the province. Historically, those roads could be relied on for 70 to 80 days during winter months. But shorter and warmer winters have significantly narrowed that window, sometimes to fewer than 30 days.
No community is more aware of the risks than Deer Lake. Meekis’ second uncle, former deputy chief Henry Meekis, drowned in late 2012 after the ice-road grooming machine he was driving plunged through the ice.
“There’s something definitely wrong in the North,” said Isadore Day, Ontario’s regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations.
In an interview, Day said he suspects that despair over climate change — its impact on roads, infrastructure, hunting traditions and the surrounding environment — is contributing to mental health and social problems in northern aboriginal communities, possibly even to record-breaking suicide rates.
He has called on the province and federal government to conduct a major climate change impact study for the North, one that would involve extensive consultations with community elders who have lived off the land for decades and can share their traditional ecological knowledge.
“A study of this nature, if done, will have the added effect of short-circuiting the anxiety we have of being left out of this growing national discussion on climate change policy,” said Day.
Ashlee Cunsolo Willox, an assistant professor of indigenous studies at Cape Breton University, said the connection between mental health and climate change in Canada’s North is growing stronger and in “urgent” need of further investigation.
“There’s this dialogue that’s just waiting to leap out into the national and international consciousness,” she said. “In Canada, we have this active fishing culture, active farming culture, and large Arctic indigenous groups who are on the front lines of climate change, yet we have been really quiet on this topic.”
Cunsolo Willox is trying to make some noise. In late 2009, as part of her PhD dissertation, she began interviewing residents of Nunatsiavut, Labrador, to learn how Inuit communities were coping with the effects of climate change.
After conducting and analyzing 85 in-depth interviews and collecting 112 questionnaires, it became clear to her that people were struggling emotionally and psychologically.
Family stress was elevated. Anxiety and depression seemed to be amplified. More people were turning to drugs and alcohol and having suicidal thoughts.
Many appeared to be grieving the changes in the environment — rising temperatures, volatile weather, delayed ice formation, shortened seasons, melting permafrost and shifting habitat, to name a few. Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the word “solastalgia” in a 2005 paper to describe the feeling.
Cunsolo Willox said she was moved to tears by the deep connection the Inuit she spoke with have to the land, but it only hit her after returning home and listening to the interviews she had recorded.
“It’s so hard to articulate how close they are to it and part of it – their breathing, their skin, their bones, their blood.
So even subtle impacts on the environment can have major impacts on how they feel,” said Cunsolo Willox, who co-produced a 2014 documentary based on her research called Lament for the Land.
“I spent months bearing witness to their pain. It was incredibly hard. I had a complete breakdown.”
Another observation: the people she interviewed weren’t talking to each other about it. Even health professionals in the community were feeling the impact, but didn’t connect the dots. It was only after Cunsolo Willox sparked a community conversation that people realized they weren’t alone – that many others were silently struggling.
“I think people are scared to engage because it’s bloody scary and painful to really think about it,” she said.