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Céline Hervieux-Payette

The Hon. Céline  Hervieux-Payette, P.C., LL.B. Appointed to the Senate on March 21, 1995 and appointed Leader of the Opposition on January 18, 2007, Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette represents the province of Quebec and the Senatorial Division of Bedford.

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Motion to Establish National Suicide Strategy

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Statement made on 27 October 2011 by Senator Dennis Dawson

Hon. Dennis Dawson:

Honourable senators, I am going to talk about a national suicide prevention strategy. Before I began writing my notes for this speech, I went over the remarks I have made in this chamber about this subject. I will certainly come back to it, but I found that I had forgotten the reason that motivates me to keep repeating myself on this subject: people I knew personally who committed that act, and the dozens of friends who have lost a loved one to suicide or whose loved one attempted suicide. I could name several dozen, but even if I tried to protect their identity, I still might cause them pain. It is that pain that I seek to diminish in moving a motion attempting to reduce the number of suicides in Canada.

Allow me to reread the motion that was moved in the other place and introduced here two weeks ago:

That the House agree that suicide is more than a personal tragedy, but is also a serious public health issue and public policy priority; and further that the House urge the government to work cooperatively with the provinces, territories, representative organizations from First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people, and other stakeholders to establish and fund a National Suicide Prevention Strategy, which among other measures would promote a comprehensive and evidence-driven approach to deal with this terrible loss of life.

I would like to remind honourable senators that the other place was nearly unanimous in adopting the motion in question earlier this month, on October 4.

For me, introducing this motion is the culmination of a process that really began a few years ago when I first spoke in this chamber about the issue of suicide, particularly in Quebec.

This motion also flows logically from the study of mental health in Canada undertaken by this chamber and the 2004 Kirby report, which looked at the relationship between mental illness and suicide. This report was the first step toward a political discussion on the issue. The creation of the Mental Health Commission of Canada in August 2007 and the publication of its report in 2009 were added to the list of concrete actions taken by the government to shed some light on the correlation between depression and suicide.

Honourable senators, we have to do more. Suicide is a subject that has been too often overlooked by Parliament and too often seen as a family and personal problem rather than as a growing social problem in Canada. This issue must now be more seriously addressed at the political level.

This motion grew from the evolving understanding and awareness among federal parliamentarians that suicide has now become a national priority that the government must address with seriousness, conviction and political will.

This motion recognizes that suicide is the responsibility of all Canadians. It recognizes that systems must be put in place by the government, in cooperation with the provinces, to prevent deaths by suicide. It is by researching and analyzing this problem in vulnerable groups that we will find effective solutions that we can adapt to each type of person at risk.

In the House of Commons, the debate on this motion lasted nearly four hours. It brought together all the parties, who expressed their strong general agreement — a phenomenon that is rare in the other place these days — to implement a national suicide prevention strategy. Members from all parties shared their personal experiences and knowledge about suicide before the House of Commons, and suggested key points to consider in the possible development of a national strategy. Some speeches were very sad, honourable senators. Of the various speeches made in the other place, I would like to share those that seemed particularly relevant or that were particularly touching.

First, I would like to emphasize the importance of the discussion we had in this chamber before adopting Mr. Bob Rae's motion.

Mr. Rae said:

We all have friends who have died in this terrible way and we wonder what could have caused them to do so. What we do know is there are things we can do. It is not a hopeless situation. We have to take what my grandmother used to call "the human footsteps." Every day we need to move forward by taking the human footsteps that will lead us to the progress we must make as Canadians and as a society. This is a frontier we must cross together.

Furthermore, on behalf of the Conservative Party, Mr. Harold Albrecht, of Kitchener—Conestoga, made a remark in the other chamber that depicts the situation in Canada today, and the lack of intervention from the federal government in the process of suicide prevention in Canada, from the moments before, during and after a person commits suicide. Mr. Albrecht said:

As our colleagues have pointed out today, the numbers are truly appalling. Over 300 people every month end their lives by suicide, or the equivalent of the number of passengers in one large airliner.

Later, in the same debate, Ms. Libby Davies, from Vancouver East, for the NDP, talked about an important element to take into consideration in the drafting and implementation of a national strategy on the matter.

The bill also talks about the need to establish national guidelines for best practices in suicide prevention and to work with communities to use culture specific knowledge to design appropriate policies and programs. That is a very important element. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It is a matter of understanding what is going on in a particular community, whether it be in a geographic sense, to understand those cultural specific risk factors and issues that are at play.

We need to consider studying the topic, researching it and possibly spending money on it if we want to help prevent one of the leading causes of death among some particularly vulnerable groups: military personnel, youth and Aboriginals.

I do not want to overwhelm you with numbers, but I would like to highlight some of the most tragic ones. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Each day, more than 10 Canadians commit suicide. In the past 30 years, more than 100,000 Canadians have taken their own lives. According to a health report from Statistics Canada, Canadians are seven times more likely to commit suicide than to be victims of a homicide. According to the World Health Organization, the suicide rate in Canada is 15 people in 100,000. And according to this same organization, there are at least 20 attempted suicides for each death. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth aged 18 to 24, according to the Canadian Psychiatric Association.

Passing this motion, honourable senators, will obviously be too late for those who have already taken their own lives. But it is not too late to protect those who are considering that act. It is time for the federal government, in partnership with the provinces, to implement guidelines to coordinate efforts in local communities across the country in order to prevent suicide. We need to eliminate the current gaps in program implementation, particularly when it comes to the most vulnerable groups.

I would like to speak about the situation in Quebec in more detail. It goes without saying that I cannot talk about a national suicide prevention strategy without talking about Quebec's fight to prevent suicide, a cause that I am quite involved in. I would like to provide some statistics by way of illustration. These numbers demonstrate the gravity of the situation.

Every day, three Quebecers are lost to suicide. On average, 30 people a day are in mourning because of suicide. They suffer because of another person's suicide. Every year, more than 20,000 people call the suicide prevention centre in Quebec City to ask for help. This shows that there are ways to help people. Of the calls received, 48 per cent are from men. In 2008, there were 1,100 suicides in Quebec; 76 per cent of those were men and 24 per cent were women. Suicide is a phenomenon that affects all age groups and social classes to varying degrees. The age group most affected is 35- to 49-year-olds, and men in particular. Suicide is one of the primary causes of premature death in Quebec. The suicide rate is twice as high as the traffic-related death rate, and we know how much money governments spend on trying to prevent traffic-related deaths. There really is no comparison if we look at what is spent on suicide prevention. It is estimated that a suicide costs society about $900,000, including the direct costs for health care, the autopsy, the funeral and police investigations, as well as the indirect costs in terms of lost productivity.

In 1998 in Quebec, politicians looked at the abnormally high suicide rate among young people. The province created awareness programs in the schools to get young people talking about suicide, without any taboos or prejudices. Training and prevention programs were also created with special funding. The suicide rate in Quebec has dropped dramatically over the past 10 years.

According to the AQPS, the Quebec association for suicide prevention, the number of requests for help is inversely proportional to the decrease in the number of suicides, proving that help and support from the government produce results.

The creation of help lines and support lines has had a positive effect: from 2001 to 2010, the number of suicides in the Quebec City area dropped from 156 to 95. During that same period, the number of requests for help that were answered went from 12,000 to 20,000.

There is still work to be done. We will not stop there. That is the message that must be drawn from this, and it is the message that the AQPS sent during Suicide Prevention Week in February 2011.

I would like to read the statement that was issued:

Because today, three of our fellow citizens will die by suicide, joining the 12,988 Quebecers who have died by suicide during the last 10 years, and these deaths have left behind more than a quarter of a million grieving people;

Because suicide is a leading cause of death in this country and it affects all regions;

Because we believe that, through concerted, coherent and intensive action, we can combat this phenomenon by making sure that all people in need have access to the effective resources they need;

Because we do not want suicide to take away any more of our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, other relatives, friends, colleagues, neighbours or students;

We believe that when it comes to suicide, education and awareness are everyone's responsibility. If we take a stand, we can make a difference.

The AQPS's message was this: "You are important to us. Suicide is not an option!"

This positive example of a concrete solution to curb suicide does not reflect the reality facing remote communities across Canada. These communities are all too often overlooked when it comes to providing services to improve awareness and support and to prevent suicide. Furthermore, vulnerable groups see suicide, more than ever, as a solution to their distress, be it psychological, emotional, physiological or socio-economic. This is true of First Nations people and veterans — two well-known, concrete examples that illustrate the urgent need to take action on suicide prevention.

Take, for example, the extent of the problem among Aboriginal people. I know that some honourable senators wish to address this aspect in particular during the debate on this motion. We have known since the 1995 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples that the suicide rate among Aboriginal people is alarming. In fact, according to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, the overall suicide rate for First Nations people is almost twice that of Canada's general population. The rate of suicide among Inuit people in particular is about six to eight times higher than the Canadian average. For Aboriginal youth, the statistics are bleak: the suicide rate is five to seven times higher than for non-Aboriginals, and eleven times higher than the Canadian average in Inuit regions.

The government's National Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy is a step in the right direction, and I applaud that. However, it is not enough to curb the staggering suicide rates in First Nations communities. According to a number of studies, a different approach adapted for Aboriginal communities that takes into account biological, physiological, developmental and socio-historical factors is needed. The role of the federal government should not be limited to providing medical services as a means of preventing suicide in these communities.

We should talk about the growth of this phenomenon among the military. I am sure that Senator Dallaire will speak in more detail about this. The suicide rate for members of the Armed Forces is almost three times that of the general population. There is a mental health crisis among veterans that must be addressed.

Let us talk about solutions. The Kirby report, produced by a Senate committee in 2004, stated the following:

Suicide is a stoppable problem. It is an action, not an illness.

It is from that perspective that we should view the role of the federal government in dealing with suicide in Canada. Constitutional authority over the First Nations, the Inuit, the Canadian Forces, veterans, the RCMP and public service employees belongs to the federal government. Suicide prevention among these at-risk groups is a responsibility of the Government of Canada, but has not, so far, been an explicit objective with regard to each of these groups. This might change one day.

As the Honourable Bob Rae said last week in the House of Commons, we have to make a difference by debating it.

L'Association québécoise de prévention du suicide is an example of success in elaborating a support system for people and their families. If we start by offering the help services needed, by addressing mental health illness issues related to suicide, as well as continuing the national discussion on social and financial problems that are directly and indirectly the underlining factors of suicide in Canada, we will achieve the reduction of suicide rates all across the country. There are ways to face and tackle problem. It is us who need to find those solutions. It is our responsibility. The provinces are lacking funding. That is where the federal government comes into play and must become an actor in the implementation of a real solution for the problems in Canada.

Honourable senators, I mentioned before in this chamber that the subject of suicide is taboo. I invite you to search how many times suicide has been mentioned in this room and you will probably be surprised the few times that it has been done. It turns people off. You do not win votes talking about suicide. Frankly, you do not want to make people sad. You do not want to make people sad when seeking their electoral support.

I know that I am part of the group in this chamber that has a slight partisan streak, but the objectives behind this motion are by far, in its nature, very non-partisan.

I appeal to members on both sides of this house to support the motion but, more importantly, to talk about this subject — not necessarily here, but bring this subject to the forefront so that it will get the attention it deserves. How we have traditionally hidden the details of suicides in the media because we are afraid that it will encourage others. We have been silent on the sites that are used because we think it will encourage others. We must talk about the subject. No matter how dramatic the numbers are already, we all know that many more suicides are hidden as accidents or natural deaths.

I hope my colleagues on both sides of the chamber will support this motion, which, as you know, was adopted in the House of Commons almost unanimously. The question now is the following: what concrete measures can we adopt to reflect this political will? The majority of the stakeholders applaud this initiative by the House of Commons, but they are left wondering what concrete measures the government will adopt. I will let the government answer that question. Nonetheless, I believe that we, the Senate of Canada, can mandate the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology to conduct a study and, as it did in the case of mental illness, advance knowledge on the subject and help Canadians understand the importance of taking action in order to eradicate — or at least diminish — this scourge.

My friends, I count on you to support this motion to show we care and to show that we can address this subject in a serious way and talk publicly of what has not been addressed enough by any level of government. We, the Senate, can continue the public debate on this serious issue.

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