Like an iceberg, 1992: “Sad Stories”
On that day in Puvirnituq, sometime during the fall of 1992, at 7 a.m. the Air Inuit 748 circled overhead before it turned down the coast to the South.
From the air, in the gray light, nothing distinguished this village from any other in northern Quebec. The rows of nearly identical houses huddled together in a few tight lines on the tundra.
Few lights were on at this hour. A woman, pale in a white parka, riding around on an all-terrain vehicle, was the only person out and about. The first real noises of the morning came from water and sewage trucks plugging into houses.
Snow fell in quiet spirals. Only a few days ago, the land was a mottled brown, gray and orange. Cool yellowish sand, rocks, withered Arctic cotton flowers and a few spindly grasses were now covered in white. Through the new snow, small groups of children walking to school made less noise, even as they called to each other.
By 9 a.m., from the Inuulitsivik hospital, that metallic form on the horizon, an electronic hum as computers and fax machines sprang to life. Scores of all-terrain vehicles were waking up, too. A woman with a child on her back and another in front raced by. She finally came to a stop in front of the Northern store, where the heavy doors swung open and shut all day, to a background of loudly chiming cash registers.
Huge bulldozers and front-end loaders rumbled behind the half-finished shell of the new school. The noise of a crane lifting a long metal girder broke up the constant whine of power tools. Not far away, in a small white tent, a small sound was drowned out: a soapstone carver filed and scraped a piece of stone. Suddenly, it became a seal under the ice, a bear above, peering down a small hole.
At noon, all over the village, there was a moment of quiet. Life stopped every afternoon when the television soap opera “All My Children” came on.
I was learning how Puvirnituq’s stories of death among young people rivalled the soap opera’s roller-coaster plots. Puvirnituq was then the suicide capital of the industrial world, with a suicide rate 2,000 times higher than the South’s, 16 suicides in one year in this community, whose population in the early 1990s was around 1,000.
I heard about a young girl who was found face-down, dead, just the week before my arrival. She had been sniffing inhalants, I was told, or maybe she sniffed too much on purpose. I heard lots of other suicide stories from teenaged girls and boys who hang out in the kitchen of the place I was staying.
“He broke up with his girlfriend … so he shot himself … it’s to draw attention … the suicides only happen in summer … he was sniffing hairspray and didn’t know what he was doing.”
I spoke with a young guy called M., a tall, gangly teenager with a soft voice. He told me that he lost four friends to suicide in that year.
“I never knew about it beforehand. It was a shock to me. They were gone the next day,” he said.
He said it’s because there are too many things to do in Puvirnituq, not too few.
“Three things we never had before have had a tremendous effect,” he said. “These three things are television, the arcades and liquor. These three are the common problems. Oh, yes. And sniffing. That’s the fourth thing. It’s very big.”
He said nothing seems to be getting better for young people in Puvirnituq who are swallowed up by these activities: They don’t talk much to their parents or each other.
He told me about his cousin Deedee. She became pregnant and her boyfriend was in jail. She wasn’t ready to become a mother, he said, so she killed herself. She was 16.
“And I tried to kill myself,” M. added in a matter-of-fact voice. “While I was unconscious, the rope around my neck snapped and I fell to the floor, and when I woke up, I was having a lot of pain. I could hardly breathe. I was disappointed at first.”
But afterwards, he said he felt that it might not have been a good solution, because people would have missed him.
I was taken off guard by M.’s confession about his failed suicide attempt, but I was even more surprised when a social worker I was talking to in the hospital about Puvirnituq’s suicide prevention programs began to talk about her own son, who recently died by suicide.
She leaned over to speak into the microphone, as if I wasn’t there.
“He never seems to have problem. He never seems to talk about it. It was very hard at first. I’m trying to learn to accept it,” she said.
She thought about leaving social work, she said, but decided that she could help others. She said she still didn’t understand what went wrong with her son.
“He didn’t have a sniffing problem. He didn’t have a drug problem. He didn’t drink. He didn’t smoke. He wasn’t violent at home. He was really a good boy, until his dying day. I didn’t know. I keep on asking, ‘Why? why?’ As long as I live, I’ll ask ‘Why? why?’ My son died. Will I suffer a long time? Will I want to live for a long time? I don’t want to forget him.”
All the parents feel the same, she said.
“We were supposed to move,” she said. “I said. “No, I don’t want to move from my house, because my son is holding all of us here. I want to touch where he was touching, stand where he was standing. I don’t want to run away from my son, here he was. When I think about it, it seems that he was holding all of us, he was such a good son. I keep talking to others how it feels. So, I’m getting stronger and stronger. Life is life. We’re not alone in the world, crying.”
I couldn’t understand why people talked to me, a journalist when I turned the tape recorder on. People talked so openly, yet I always had trouble — and still do — understanding why these young Inuit wanted to kill themselves. Later I would experience the overwhelming wrath of people at a big meeting of Makivik Corp. which could make me understand how vulnerable you can feel in a small northern community.
The next instalment of “Like an iceberg” goes live April 8.
You can read the first blog entry from April 2 here.
You can read other previous instalments here:
Like an iceberg, 1991…cont.
Like an iceberg, 1991…more
Like an iceberg, 1992, “Shots in the dark”