They came from far and wide. Some flew in from James Bay, Nunavik and the Quebec-New Brunswick border. Others drove from reserves throughout the interior. More simply hopped a bus from Kahnawake. But they all gathered for a sobering and emotional reason – to talk about suicide.
First Nations social workers, therapists, traditional healers, Elders, families, youth and anyone else whose life has been touched by this tragedy attended for the Dialogue for Life suicide prevention conference for professionals at Montreal’s Sheraton Hotel November 23-28.
They included Jack Otter, a suicide prevention coordinator for the Waswanipi Band Council.
“I came here to acquire new tools to take back to my community; this is new information on how to help them and how to deal with suicide,” Otter explained. “I have been learning a lot of new things and I am not the only one as there are a few others who came here with me from Waswanipi.”
Otter was impressed with how well the organizers had put the event together, saying it gave him not only the opportunity for learning but also networking. He met other professionals who could bring their services to the north, an option far less costly to the community than flying Crees south.
Of greatest value to Otter were the new techniques he learned about how to conduct workshops with individuals, as well as with parents who have lost a child to suicide.
“Some parents blame themselves for losing the child. But it was said that this is not their fault, that their child may have had some issues before,” said Otter.
Chisasibi’s Bobby Neacappo was networking with a lot of new contacts at the conference.
“I sometimes work with the residential-school survivors when they need help and support,” Neacappo said. “We do a lot of traditional healing. With residential schools we lost our traditional way of life and afterwards a lot of problems started with alcohol, drugs and suicides.
“I did not go to residential school but I still drank. I don’t know why, but I didn’t listen to my father. After a while I found out that alcohol was no good for me.”
Neacappo said his message concentrates on traditional healing through the Creator. He said that everyone has a gift from the Creator and should “understand what gift you have and why you are here, why the Creator gave it to you to live here.”
Veteran Dialogue for Life board member Derek Barnaby, a suicide and family worker from the Listuguj Mig’maq community, spoke about the trends he was seeing and how they impacted the event.
While a lot of the conference focuses on youth, Barnaby said that with all of the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission events, there have been suicide concerns for First Nations Elders. Describing it as the opening of a “Pandora’s Box,” some Elders have been silent for nearly 60 years about the atrocities they endured throughout their stolen childhoods and now some are speaking out.
“For the longest time our people have been told to be ashamed of the things that have happened, like the sexual abuse or the cutting of their hair or the beatings or other harm like the psychological, cultural and spiritual abuse. This shame has come a long way with them as has the impact of it. Now they can talk about it but in this process an overwhelming sense of emotion, fear and anxiety has emerged and many of our people don’t know how to respond to it. Our coping mechanisms for this are not as great as we would like them to be and suicide is a coping mechanism to get rid of your pain,” said Barnaby.
Many of these individuals face cultural dilemmas in trying to reconcile their pasts, he added. They were forcefully instructed to reject their own culture in childhood and many experience great difficulty when it comes to embracing traditional healing.
“Things like the singing, the dancing, sweat lodges and sweet grasses, these are the things we see as part of our culture. But, because of what they have been taught they are in conflict when it comes to what they feel they can accept and those conflicts put them at risk. Now we are starting to find that many among the older generations are slowly taking steps towards reclaiming their cultural identity,” said Barnaby.
For Thelma Nelson, the director of Dialogue for Life, said many attendees approached her to tell her about the impact the conference was having on them.
“They are saying that they are getting so much healing and this is what we need and want,” said Nelson.
According to Nelson, because the conference is now getting some of its funding through Health Canada under the new National Youth Prevention Strategy, much of the programming was directed at the youth to give them tools for mental health throughout their lives.
“Many of the youth who I have met have told me the same thing. They say that adults tell them that they are the future leaders, but some told me that they don’t know what to do because nobody is teaching them. This is sad, how can you tell someone to take over when they don’t know what to do in order to take over,” said Nelson.
Having worked for the event since 2007, Nelson has seen an evolution over the years. People from many First Nations now come together while in the past they stayed in separate corners and associated only with those from their communities.
“We are all here for healing; we meet new friends and enjoy the company of old friends. Together we laugh, cry, heal and dance,” said Nelson.