Canada: The Aboriginal Community Youth Resilience Network (ACYRN)

Youth suicide is an urgent issue for First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities in Canada. While there is much variation among communities, overall suicide rates are striking when compared to those among non-Aboriginals in the same age group: five to seven times higher for First Nations and Métis, and among Inuit youth as much as eleven times higher. Suicide is a problem that not only affects youth, but also impacts the whole community. The ripple effect of trauma is especially powerful in small, close-knit Aboriginal communities.

April Maloney, a Mi’kmaw researcher who coordinates ACYRN in Atlantic Canada, shares her experiences with Métis community-based researchers in Edmonton.

The Aboriginal Community Youth Resilience Network (ACYRN) takes a community approach to reducing what is usually known as “youth risk”. We believe that Aboriginal communities, through the practice of their traditional values and culture, have an underestimated potential for collective and individual resilience, which can be channelled into the prevention of youth suicide.

ACYRN currently involves 20 First Nations and Métis communities in Atlantic Canada and Alberta. The network helps member communities to identify their own resilience factors, so they can build on local resources to prevent youth suicide.

Building community capacities is at the heart of ACYRN. Our network trains people from each of the member communities to do the research themselves. These community-based researchers learn how to develop questionnaires, capture and analyze data, use the evidence for advocacy and planning, and prepare proposals for additional funding.  

The ACYRN network came together in 2005 and will run until 2010 with funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). As of April 2007, we have collected data from all participating communities. The CBRs will next share the findings with the communities and encourage them to use the evidence for action. In future research cycles, they will evaluate the outcomes and help adjust the interventions.

ACYRN evolved from an ACADRE-funded initiative to look into suicide risk among Aboriginal youth.

Some common features in ACYRN

  • Most research on suicide in done with survivors. ACYRN goes upstream along the chain of events, trying to spot individual and community traits that promote wellbeing, as well as those that put youth at risk. We understand that reducing risk and boosting resilience go hand in hand.
  • In our view, resilience combines spirituality, family strength, Elders, ceremonial rituals, oral traditions, identity, and support networks. This collective and cultural dimension of resilience is at the heart of ACYRN.   
  • ACYRN aims to leave a sustainable legacy for research and planning. As a result of this collective effort, the participating communities should be better prepared to carry out their own research, evaluate external research requests, support advocacy and planning, and use scientific evidence to their benefit.
  • In ACYRN, one size does not fit all: Each community decides how to participate, learns at its own pace, and takes preventive action based on available evidence and resources.
  • The ACYRN communities steer the research process, based on the principles of Aboriginal ownership, control, access, and possession (OCAP), which link research to self-determination and self-government among Aboriginal peoples in Canada. In ACYRN, Aboriginal people have the lead roles at community level. All member communities sign a Data Sharing Agreement to ensure accountability and clarify data ownership and use. Respected community Elders guide our work, and we also consult with youth and their families.

An example of an evidence-based tool used for community decision-making around the problem of suicide has been published in the Summer 2008 issue of Pimatisiwin: A Journal of Indigenous and Aboriginal Community Health.