Film Review by Harry Karlinsky, MD, MSc, FRCPC,
Clinical Professor, University of British Columbia;
Coordinator, Medical Education/Professional Development, Richmond Mental Health Services; and
April Karlinsky, 2nd year student,
Hon. in Human Kinetics, BSc, University of Ottawa
Canada, 2004, Big Red Barn Entertainment/Trailer Park Productions
The suicide rate of Inuit in Canada is well known and alarming – generally cited as six to 11 times higher than that of the general population. The reasons offered are complex and include a higher prevalence of the following known risk factors for suicidal behaviour: childhood separation and loss, alcohol abuse and dependence, personal or family mental health problems, and exposure to self-destructive behaviour by others.
The overrepresentation of these individual risk factors reflects a very sad chapter in Canadian history, involving larger social and political considerations such as colonization, marginalization and cultural suppression. While the study of suicide prevention in general still requires a firmer evidence-based foundation, a recent comprehensive report focusing on suicide among Aboriginal people in Canada has highlighted the current limited information on Aboriginal suicide, its origins, and how to successfully intervene.
Enter the story of Terence Tootoo.
Terence Tootoo was born in Churchill, Manitoba but grew up in Rankin Inlet where he was taught to play hockey by his father, an Inuk from Nunavut. After a successful junior hockey career, Terence became the first Inuk to play professional hockey, signing a contract with the Roanoke Express of the East Coast Hockey League in the summer of 2001. Following the 2001-02 season, he was named the Express’ Rookie of the Year. Terence’s younger brother Jordin also excelled at hockey. In the summer of 2002, Terence went to Brandon, Manitoba, to train with his brother. After a fateful evening of dinner and drinks with his brother, Terence left and was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. Following his release, Terence committed suicide with a firearm. He was 22 years old.
It wasn’t just the newspaper headlines that conveyed details of Terence’s death. The documentary, Team Spirit: The Jordin and Terence Tootoo Story, soon followed.
Relying heavily on sports footage of their playing careers as well as interviews with family, teammates and coaches, Team Spirit begins by emphasizing the close relationship between Terence and Jordin, as well as the seriousness with which both assumed their positions as role models and ambassadors for their Inuit community.
After conveying details of Terence’s suicide, the film then revolves around whether Jordin will be able to carry on in his brother’s footsteps and become the first Inuk to make it on a National Hockey League (NHL) roster. The documentary ends on October 9, 2003, when viewers witness Jordin playing his first game with the NHL Nashville Predators.
Although Jordin’s resiliency and determination is an inspiring story, Team Spirit is in many ways a lost opportunity from a psychiatric perspective.
Terence’s suicide is almost entirely portrayed as secondary to the pressures he felt as a role model to his Inuit community. He was obviously devastated by his impaired driving charge. It was undoubtedly the immediate principal factor that precipitated his impulsive suicide, but there is virtually no mention within the documentary of the myriad of other socioeconomic, political and social risk factors to which Terence was exposed growing up in Rankin Inlet. It has also been suggested that life crises may play a crucial role in many suicides of Aboriginal youth.
Interestingly, the film does highlight that an important police protocol appears to have not been followed in the aftermath of Terence’s arrest, which may have been a significant contributing factor to his death. In Manitoba, those released on a DUI charge must be placed in the care of a sober adult. In Terence’s case, he apparently was simply dropped off in the early morning hours at the home where he and his brother were billeted. Terence apparently had no subsequent contact with either Jordin or those who owned the home (and with whom he had a very positive relationship) prior to his suicide, which occurred immediately after he awoke later that same day.
It is entirely conceivable that an opportunity to discuss his DUI with a supportive family member or friend may have provided a healthier perspective from which to evaluate the DUI’s perceived impact on his career and his standing in his community.
Despite the limitations noted above, Team Spirit does provide a welcome glimpse into the world of professional sports and its associated pressures, particularly when these go beyond the challenges of individual success and include the additional pressures associated with seriously wearing the role model mantle as well as representing a marginalized community. Team Spirit also provides an opportunity to reflect upon how suicide impacts a given community. As one Inuit leader has conveyed, “Suicide deaths have a devastating impact on our entire communities. Inuit culture is based on the community, and when a suicide death occurs, it affects everyone, and the ripple effect goes far beyond the immediate community.”
The demographic group most at risk for completed suicide among Inuit in Northern Canada is single males aged 15 to 24. From a heartless statistical perspective, Terence Tootoo’s suicide is simply one more tragic but not unexpected death.
It is clear that community-based and culturally appropriate prevention programs are urgently needed in the North, particularly for individuals identified at high risk for suicide.
The story of the Tootoo brothers, conveyed in Team Spirit and other media initiatives and reports (the Tootoo brothers’ lives were also the subject of a CBC sports documentary Seeking the Way: The Hockey Journey of the Tootoo Brothers) may ultimately be a useful impetus in this direction.
There is a particular positive outcome worth emphasizing. The influence of social modeling on suicide has a flip side.
Team Spirit was a film with two stories – an account not just of Terence’s suicide, but also one of Jordin’s resiliency and determination. Jordin continues to play for the Nashville Predators. Hopefully, those in the Inuit community (and others) will benefit from Jordin’s inspired story.
1. Boothroyd LJ, Kirmayer LJ, Spreng S, Malus M, Hodgins S. Completed suicides among the Inuit of northern Quebec, 1982-1996: a case-control study. CMAJ, September 18, 2001, 165(6):749-755.
2. Kirmayer LJ, Brass GM, Holton T, Paul K, Simpson C, Tait C. Suicide Among Aboriginal People in Canada. Ottawa: The Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2007.
3. Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Tragedy of Inuit Suicides Must End. Media Release, November 16, 2008. (www.itk.ca/media-centre/media-releases/tragedy-inuit-suicides-must-end).