Aboriginal youth target tobacco and suicide

Thinking about how many aboriginal people smoke makes Nona Whitehouse angry. "I think it's a huge problem," the 22-year-old Tr'ondek Hwech'in member said.

Thinking about how many aboriginal people smoke makes Nona Whitehouse angry.

“I think it’s a huge problem,” the 22-year-old Tr’ondek Hwech’in member said. “I see a lot of young people that look even too young to buy cigarettes, smoking. It’s sad.”

In November, Whitehouse joined the National Association of Friendship Centres’ Youth Council. Despite being new, she has already been given the role as northern representative.

The national council co-ordinates many different campaigns and Whitehouse sits on the tobacco prevention committee.

Armed with shocking graphics, like the ones on cigarette packages, and a new app for iPhones and iPods that helps teens quit smoking, the national campaign is aimed at promoting non-smoking in high schools and colleges, she said.

And like the national association’s newly announced suicide prevention campaign, it also focuses on urban aboriginal youth.

That’s a bit of a problem, said Whitehouse.

“The North does get excluded in big topics because we don’t have reserves or we’re not considered urban,” she said. “But we have the same problems. And it starts in the rural communities. By the time it gets to Whitehorse, it’s already habitual.”

The National Association of Friendship Centres held their annual meeting in Whitehorse last week to help celebrate the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre’s 50th anniversary.

By a stroke of luck, Jordin Tootoo was also in town, helping out with a NorthwesTel-sponsored hockey camp.

Last Wednesday, the first Inuit hockey player in the NHL joined the youth council to help announce and promote the national suicide prevention campaign.

Like many aboriginal families, especially in the rural North, Tootoo’s family is all too familiar with teen suicide.

In 2002, Tootoo’s 22-year-old brother killed himself.

“This is our key focus right now,” said the head of the national youth council, Andrea Landry, about the urban aboriginal suicide prevention plan last week. “We’re in partnership with Kids Help Phone and we’re actually working on a proposal to Health Canada, which will be sent out at the end of August. Through this, we hope to create this initiative which will allow youth to be trained in how to run a suicide prevention workshop. And through that we will be able to create lower numbers of urban aboriginal youth in regards to suicides because it is high in our communities.”

It was only two weeks ago that the Yukon lost their most recent aboriginal youth to suicide.

A 19-year-old Kwanlin Dun First Nation member committed suicide in Whitehorse.

Whitehouse hopes she can help broaden the scope of the national association’s urban campaigns.

After heading down to B.C. to start her degree in Aboriginal Studies at Langara College in September, Whitehouse will be in Ottawa in October for another meeting with the tobacco prevention committee.

She hopes to shed light on the fact that many aboriginal youth start out in the communities, and the importance of spreading awareness in those rural centres should not be ignored.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at