Suicide in Canada

This article contains sensitive material that may not be suitable for all audiences.

Suicide is the act of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally. Suicide was decriminalized in Canada in 1972, while physician-assisted suicide was decriminalized in 2015. Suicide is among the leading causes of death in Canada, particularly among men. On average, approximately 4,000 Canadians commit suicide every year, and there are about 11 suicides per 100,000 people in Canada. This rate is higher for men and among Indigenous communities. Suicide is usually the result of a combination of factors, including addiction and mental illness (especially depression), physical deterioration, financial difficulties, marriage breakdown and lack of social and medical support.

This article contains sensitive material that may not be suitable for all audiences. Suicide is the act of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally. Suicide was decriminalized in Canada in 1972, while physician-assisted suicide was decriminalized in 2015. Suicide is among the leading causes of death in Canada, particularly among men. On average, approximately 4,000 Canadians commit suicide every year, and there are about 11 suicides per 100,000 people in Canada. This rate is higher for men and among Indigenous communities. Suicide is usually the result of a combination of factors, including addiction and mental illness (especially depression), physical deterioration, financial difficulties, marriage breakdown and lack of social and medical support.


Assisted Suicide in Canada

For many years, suicide or attempted suicide was considered a criminal offence. In 1972, suicide was decriminalized in Canada, and someone who now attempts suicide is not liable to sanction under the Criminal Code. However, assisted suicide remained a criminal offence under section 241(b) of the Criminal Code. Anyone found guilty of counselling another to take his or her own life or of aiding a suicide was liable to imprisonment of up to 14 years, whether or not the suicide attempt was successful.

There has been much debate in provincial and federal legislatures concerning the right of individuals to physician- or other-assisted suicide, particularly in cases where the person’s disability prevents them from committing the act without assistance. In 1993, the prohibition against assisted suicide was challenged by Sue Rodriguez (Rodriguez v. British Columbia, 1993), resulting in considerable public discussion of the issue. The status quo was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada, and Rodriguez ended her life in 1994, assisted by an unknown physician.

In 2011, the BC Civil Liberties Association filed a lawsuit challenging the law against assisted suicide. The case was brought to court on behalf of the families of Kay Carter and Gloria Taylor, both of whom suffered from debilitating conditions (Carter died in 2010; Taylor in 2012). In 2014, the case came before the Supreme Court.

On 6 February 2015, the court voted unanimously (9–0) to allow physician-assisted suicide for “a competent adult person who (1) clearly consents to the termination of life; and (2) has a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition.” The court reasoned that the Criminal Code prohibition was unconstitutional because it breached the rights to life, liberty and security of the person, as enshrined in section 7 of the Charter.

On 17 June 2016, over a year after the Supreme Court decision, new federal legislation established the procedural safeguards and eligibility criteria for medically assisted suicide. According to the Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) Act, those eligible have to be at least 18 years of age, with a “grievous and irremediable medical condition” that causes “enduring physical or psychological suffering that is intolerable to them.” Moreover, they must be in an “advanced state of irreversible decline,” in which their “natural death has become reasonably foreseeable.” Critics pointed out that the legislation was more restrictive than the Supreme Court decision and that it might be vulnerable to constitutional appeal.

In January 2019, two Montrealers, Jean Truchon and Nicole Gladu, launched a court challenge seeking access to medically assisted death under Quebec and federal legislation. Both individuals had degenerative diseases that they said caused “persistent and intolerable suffering.” They argued that the existing legislation was too narrow and deprived them of their Charter rights. In September 2019, a Superior Court of Quebec justice ruled that the precondition for assisted death — that natural death was “reasonably foreseeable” — was unconstitutional. The court gave both the Quebec and federal governments six months to respond to its decision. In March 2020, the Quebec government simply dropped the problematic provision.

In February 2020, the Liberal government introduced Bill C-7, which proposed to allow MAID for those whose natural death was “not reasonably foreseeable.” It would, however, continue to prohibit MAID for individuals whose only underlying condition was mental illness. Bill C-7 also established safeguards for the two different streams — that is, for those whose natural death was reasonably foreseeable and for those whose death was not reasonably foreseeable. However, discussion of Bill C-7 was stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted parliamentary proceedings. It was reintroduced in October 2020. Bill C-7 was passed in the House of Commons by a vote of 212 to 107 on 10 December 2020. It has yet to be passed by Senate. ( See Assisted Suicide in Canada for more information.)

Suicide Rates in Canada

The main source of data for suicide rates is the Canadian Vital Statistics Death Database, which collects "demographic and medical (cause of death) information annually from all provincial and territorial vital statistics registries.” Statistics Canada analyst Tanya Navaneelan has pointed out, however, that suicides may be under-reported in this data source, given the “difficult nature of classifying suicide and the time lag in determining this as the cause of death, which may vary from year to year and from one region to another.”

Suicide Rates in Canada (2015–19)


2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
Number (All)
4,405
3,978
4,157
3,811
4,012
Number Males
3,269
2,939
3,112
2,880
3,058
Number Females
1,136
1,039
1,045
931
954
Rate (All)
No. per 100,000

12.3
11.0
11.3
10.3
10.7
Rate Males
18.4
16.3
17.1
15.7
16.4
Rate Females
6.3
5.7
5.7
5.0
5.0

Suicide Rates by Province/Territory(2015–19)

Province/Territory
2015
2016
2017
2018
2019
Ontario
9.8
9.8
10.0
9 9.1
Prince Edward Island
4.8
6.4
11.0 4.7 11.5
Yukon
15.9
21.0
No data No data No data
British Columbia
11.3
10.0
9.7 8.1 8.6
Newfoundland and Labrador
12.2
14.1
17.5 13.9 12.0
Nova Scotia
13.1
13.2
14.2 12.5 12.5
New Brunswick
16.2
15.9
12.4 14.8 10.3
Quebec
13.9
9.4
10.4 9.6 11.5
Manitoba
14.1
15.6
15.8 14.2 15.4
Alberta
16.2
14.3
15.2 13.6 13.3
Saskatchewan
14.7
16.4 15.6 20.2 14.7
Northwest Territories
21.0
24.3
11.9 26.2 14.5
Nunavut
76.3
60.3
44.9 45.0 78.1

Trends and High Risk Groups

Suicide statistics reveal a number of trends, including higher suicide rates among males, the middle-aged and Indigenous communities. Research also suggests that members of the LGBTQ community (particularly youth) are more likely to consider or attempt suicide.

Sex (Male/Female)

Suicide is among the top 10 causes of death in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, suicide was responsible for 1.4 per cent of all deaths in Canada (ranked ninth) in 2019. However, there is a significant difference between males and females: suicide accounted for 2.1 per cent of all male deaths in 2019 (ranked eighth) and 0.7 per cent of all female deaths (ranked 14th). The suicide rate for males in 2019 was 16.5 per 100,000; for females, it was 5.1. However, these statistics can be misleading, as women are, in fact, more likely to attempt suicide. Males are more likely to employ more violent and certain methods (for example, firearms, explosives or hanging), while females are more likely to use drugs — a less certain method. The lower suicide rate for women, therefore, reflects a lower “success” rate.

Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation

The statistics cited above specify (biological) sex, but not gender identity or sexual orientation. It is, therefore, unknown how many of the above victims identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or Two-Spirit. However, many studies suggest that members of the LGBTQ community (particularly youth) are more likely to consider or attempt suicide than those who identify as heterosexual and that bullying, harassment, discrimination and lack of support from family and society are likely to blame.

Age

Suicide rates (number of suicides per 100,000) are highest among men and women aged 45 to 59. This is different than most other countries, in which suicide rates tend to be highest among the elderly as opposed to those in mid-life. Although suicide rates are lower among young Canadians, suicide is, in fact, one of the leading causes of death for those aged 15 to 34 (second only to accidental death). This reflects the fact that young people do not usually die from natural causes.

Indigenous Populations

First Nations and Inuit communities suffer a much higher suicide rate than the general Canadian population, although rates vary by region and community. On average, the suicide rate is three times the national average in First Nations communities and about nine times the national average among Inuit in Nunavut. The number of Indigenous youth who either attempt or complete suicide has risen in recent years. Psychological distress, mental illness (especially depression), alcohol and drug abuse, childhood abuse and lack of access to social and mental health resources have contributed to this worrying rise in suicide among certain Indigenous communities. (See Suicide among Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)

Risk Factors and Suicide Prevention

Addiction and mental illness (particularly depression) are the most common risk factors for suicide. Other known factors include physical illness/deterioration, major loss (death of loved one, divorce, loss of job), major life changes/transitions, social isolation, lack of access to social or medical support and access to the means of suicide.

Suicide prevention strategies, therefore, include improved access to mental health and addiction resources, the training of medical professionals to better identify and treat potential suicides, campaigns to reduce stigma and increase public and media awareness, research into causes and treatment, and strengthening of community and social supports for vulnerable individuals and communities (for example, crisis and distress centres). In addition, restrictions on the availability of firearms, barriers on bridges and other “attractive hazards,” and reductions in the toxicity of gas have reduced suicide rates in some locations.


Read More // Assisted Suicide

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