Suicide is a tough issue to talk about, even though it is the 9th leading cause of death in Canada. Out of the approximately 400,000 people who commit suicide every year, 90% of them dealt with mental health issues. Getting help for these issues can be a tough first step to take, or hard to access without the proper support. As we have seen lately through the string of suicide crisis’ in First Nation communities, these problems can be compounded for Indigenous youth. A study done in 2000 showed that 126 out of 100,000 First Nation male youths would commit suicide, compared to the rate of 24 out of 100,000 for non-First Nation male youths.
The Youth Suicide Awareness Rally looked to open a dialogue around this issue, drawing attention and support to where it is desperately needed. The rally took place on September 9th, a day before World Suicide Prevention Day. The rally began at the site of the former Brandon Residential School, located just west of the city. The day opened with a prayer ceremony led by Manny Iron Hawk. Afterwards, some people shared their stories about how suicide has effected them, and the underlying issues that cause it to be a problem in their communities. At 1pm, a group of walkers carried prayers from the residential school site to the corner of 18th street & Princess. At the same time, a group went ahead to receive them and start the rally, holding signs that drew attention to the cause on one of the city’s busiest streets.
The Youth Suicide Awareness Walk first started in 2013. This was the third installment, but this year was slightly different. Usually the walk takes place from outside of Brandon, all the way to the Sioux Valley First Nation Reserve, an over 40 kilometer walk. That was also the plan this year, until the Highway Department and RCMP denied the permit to walk along Highway 1, which caused the change in plan.
The walk was originally started when one of the organizers, Ardele Mckay, noticed a mother that was having a tough time dealing with the loss of one of her children to suicide. When she noted this to her father, he suggested doing something to draw attention to the issue of youth suicide in the community. Years before, the Mckay family had opened their doors to a group walking from BC to Ottawa to raise awareness for suicide in First Nations communities. This later inspired their father with the idea of doing a walk to raise awareness in our area as well. This was the first year that the walk had been organized since their father’s passing, and everyone stressed how instrumental he was in the drive to organize the walk, but also how proud he would be to see it continued. Despite his absence, the Mckay family did an amazing job coming together to make the rally happen; from the youth who did the long walk, to the elders who shared their stories of resilience and message of hope for the future.
Many of those in attendance of the rally had been effected by the issues that cause suicide, or had dealt with the grief of loosing a loved one to suicide. People were kind enough to share their stories of struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts, hoping to strip the stigma of sharing these things and showing that there is a way forward. Austin Mckay, another organizer of the rally, stressed how important is was to open a narrative around the suicide crisis. He was adamant that not only a dialogue needed to be started, but also leadership and community needed to be strengthened to mitigate the problems that cause the crisis. The rally was not just a call for awareness, but also for action.
So like all good activism, the rally and walk serve as a point of departure to talk about how we can combat these issues. This discussion should not just be one that is only had in the aftermath of tragic events, the healing process needs to be discussed and implemented before that happens. While I am no expert on this issue, I would like to put forward some ideas for action where we can begin.
At the start of the rally, during the prayer ceremony, I was the only non-Indigenous person in attendance. While I did feel out of place in the beginning, that feeling was quickly made obsolete. Ardele and Austin both took time to have a lengthy conversation with me, sharing a lot about themselves to someone they had just met that day. Austin stressed the importance of unity, not just in his own community but across the cultural gap between First Nations and other Canadians. That was something his father had also said was an important part of moving forward. Austin encouraged me that when the prayer ceremony began, that I made sure I came over and joined. After the ceremony, people were sharing their stories. I was sitting just outside the circle when Austin approached me and told me to come sit beside him in the circle. He wanted to make sure I was included, and apart of the circle representing unity. While I may have began the mourning feeling like an ‘other’ that did not last long as everyone went out of their way to be as hospitable, inclusive, and open as possible. I was made to feel like I was supposed to be there.
Now, that feeling of acceptance and openness has to go both ways. Too often from Canadians of European descent it does not. Instead, that cultural gap is often met with indifference and hate. That of course only offers us to continue further down the path that leads us toward pain. We need to offer the same type of inconclusiveness that was so graciously extended to myself. We need need to stop hiding away in our own communities, and go to learn and listen to the voices who have been ignored for too long. Most of all, we need to show our support through action. Unity needs to be built between our communities, and that can only be achieved by standing together when required.
Solidarity between our communities is a way to move forward on issues like suicide. It is something that affects everyone, but as we have seen it has unfortunately effected First Nations Youth on a greater scale. The amount of people that honked and waved as they drove by showed that this is an issue that people care about; despite age, race, gender, or class. If the issue is faced with solidarity, instead of indifference, it provides the opportunity to change the whole narrative about how we deal with mental health and suicide prevention.
Top Down: Offering Proper Suicide Prevention
While destigmatizing and talking about issues of mental health and suicide is a step in the right direction, we also need proper systems in place to help people heal once they make the choice to. It is the job of our government to make sure that these services are adequately provided. Unfortunately, a reason that suicide crisis’ have broke out in many remote First Nations communities is because of a lack of access to services and resources, that means sometimes when help is wanted it is not readily available. Anyone who has dealt with the health care system when it comes to mental health issues knows that it can be a tedious, drawn out, and frustrating process (Even if the case is an extremely serious one). Dealing with the system can be made exponentially harder when it is based hundred of kilometers away from you.
Currently, the Liberal government is fighting a court battle that would force them to properly fund health services for First Nations youth. In 2007, a human rights complaint was filled against the Canadian Government claiming the systematic under funding of health care for First Nations youth. The Harper government in charge at the time tried fighting the claim in a court battle that lasted 7 years. Finally in 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the government had under funded those health services, ordering them to provide the same standard of services available to other Canadians. While the Liberal government has increased its funding for First Nations health care, it still does not meet the basic standard. Three times the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has issued non-compliance orders stating the government has not met its obligations. After the third, the government challenged the compliance order in federal court, saying it wants clarification on some operational points. While they say the court case is over these bureaucratic procedures, it is hard not to see it as a move to keep dodging having to provide adequate funding. The Liberal government has spent $700,000 on the current court battle.
This story has gotten some attention in the media, but the public has hardly paid the attention to it that is deserved. The ruling forces the government to provide the resources and support that the youth in these communities desperately need. When it comes to solving problems like these, the political system has to be addressed as part of the solution as well. Making sure that the system that deals with these issues is properly extended to the people who need them the most, is a key to solving the problem of suicide in First Nations youth. Putting pressure on the government to uphold the tribunal’s ruling means that could become a reality.
Finally, an impact should be made on how we talk about mental health issues and suicide. The stigma around talking about these things has slowly been withering away in our society recently, but that still does not mean people struggling with these issues might be willing to talk about them. While sharing stories of mental health struggles can open a dialogue, its also important that people can find someone willing to listen with an open mind. Friends and family are important to getting people to open up about what they are struggling with. While we can sometimes fall into the trap of certain routines when it comes to conversation with our loved ones, sometimes all it takes to get someone to open up is asking a question that goes a little deeper into how someone is really feeling or one that invites the person to speak candidly. While the stigma has been disappearing around mental health issues, the insane pressure from society to always be projecting the image of happy and productive life has not. The constant game of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ is a big factor in people hiding what they may be dealing with. While someone may feel uncomfortable talking about what they are dealing with, it is our job to cut through the social dress up and provide a comfortable space to be open in for the people in our lives.
To wrap everything up, I was glad to be able to participate in the rally that showed people with resilience, openness, empathy, and solidarity. The rally was an attempt to bring much needed awareness to a tragic issue that our country has. While the rally may have started out of a reaction to grief, the message it brings forward is out of hope; that if we stand together on this issue that we can help the youth find a way forward. If that message continues to be carried onward, it will grow into more action, which will allow us to find solutions and healing.
Next year will be the fourth year of the Youth Suicide Awareness Walk, a significant number in Dakota culture. If you would like to participate, or just show support, I encourage you to click the link below and follow the Facebook page for the rally.