Life in question: Inuit youth, suicide and the Canadian state (Nunavut)

Margaret Elizabeth Stevenson
Dept. of Anthropology, University Of California, Berkeley
July, 2005


Life in Question is an ethnographic account of the way knowledge about Inuit suicide is produced, and a phenomenological reflection on suffering and the hope for a 'new life' among Inuit youth in the Canadian territory of Nunavut. I argue that in order to understand the pain experienced by Inuit youth amidst a suicide epidemic it is necessary to 'think life differently' and to suspend, at least temporarily, the modern assumption that life is the highest good. Ultimately, refusing closure on the question of life allows us to witness and participate in forms of community that blur boundaries between life and death. Life in Question begins by documenting the way that Inuit elder suicide arose as a category in the early 20th century before the Inuit even considered themselves a distinct ethnic group. It highlights the shift that occurred after World War II as Inuit were incorporated into the Canadian national imaginary and Inuit death, rather than being a curiosity, began to require state intervention. A 'regime of life' emerged that was supported by welfare programs, medical assistance and even resettlement plans. But in one of history's uncanny reversals, as Inuit death rates were decreasing a suicide epidemic among Inuit youth erupted. The regime of life already in place began to attach itself to this new problem. Life in Question examines this discourse on life in the suicide prevention efforts of the State and in the everyday lives of Inuit youth. It asks how it became possible in modernity to care anonymously---not about a particular person, but about preserving a life. By foregrounding the experience of young Inuit within such a suicide 'apparatus' it documents the complex ways Inuit think about the body, the person, and time, and shows that 'life' cannot easily be abstracted from an Inuit cosmology in which the living and dead form part of the same community and 'life' always exceeds the individual. To attend to the question of Inuit suicide is to rethink our current understandings of community and what it means to be able to mourn the death of another.