Some bioethical implications of Indigenous suicide: Reflections on suicide in northern Ontario

Dr Richard Matthews1

1Bond University, Mudgeeraba, Australia

Similar to other colonial states, suicide rates among Indigenous populations in Canada are disproportionately high. Government responses are inadequate, at best leaving the status quo in place and commonly making conditions worse. Ill-understood is the fact that the colonial state continues to be the primary distal cause of Indigenous. This has complex and poorly understood bioethical implications. This paper applies Friedrich Engels’ (1845) concept of social murder to Indigenous suicide. This makes law, including health law, a significant cause of Indigenous suffering and death. The moral challenge is complex. Health care workers, including bioethicists, are beneficiaries and enactors of the social systems that cause the suicides. Failure to recognize this has morally paradoxical and racist results. Apparently ethical choices – whether at the level of individual behavior, policy construction, or resource allocation – become racist.  Moreover, they contribute to and legitimate the suicide crises to the extent that the bioethicist or healthcare worker fails to understand and counter these forces. The presentation concludes by suggesting strategies for avoiding social murder supporting effective suicide reduction among Indigenous populations.


Richard Matthews is a bioethicist and philosopher. He has taught and researched at multiple universities in Canada and Australia. In addition to his academic work, he has practical experience as a clinical and public health ethics consultant in north western Ontario, Canada. He has specific research interests in health ethics with Indigenous peoples and in understanding violence and conflict. Dr. Matthews is the author of a book on torture (The absolute violation: why torture must be prohibited. MQUP: Montreal & Kingston, 2007 along with articles in philosophy, social justice and medical ethics.