Since 2001, Dialogue for Life, the First Nations and Inuit Suicide Prevention Association of Quebec and Labrador has been congregating annually to work on strategies for suicide prevention, support frontline community workers and to facilitate group healing.

This year’s event, held at the Hotel Delta Montreal December 4-6, was themed “Honouring Families, Honouring Life.”

“We are celebrating life and promoting life and family is a part of that,” explained event organizer Norman Daragon. “So we saw a lot of family healing and workshops on family grieving after suicide.”

The event has grown enormously over the years, initially starting with 250 delegates. This year about 600 attended, an increase that can be attributed to the enormous youth presence along with the usual crowd of frontline workers in suicide prevention, natural helpers, police and social workers.

“During our closing ceremonies where we stand in circles we saw that the youth was really missing last year,” said Daragon. As well many delegates brought along their own children, creating a warm and inviting atmosphere.

The conference focused on healing sessions for workers who feel very stressed out and isolated when someone they try to help commits suicide. “In many communities, workers feel alone and are sometimes overwhelmed,” said Daragon.

There were also various different types of traditional and non-traditional healing sessions for those whose lives had been affected by suicide and sessions that were devoted to aboriginal pride and culture.

“People from all nations can open up and nobody judges anybody here. It Is easier to open up when you have people who can relate to what you are saying. Only then can you heal yourself and work on the trauma that happens,” said Daragon.

Various awards honoured professionals, youth and families who have made contributions to their communities. One of those honoured was 15-year veteran of the Mistissini police force, Tammy Coon.

“I won the police officer award, I was so honoured to accept the award and I am just so excited today thinking about it,” said Coon. “I went to the workshop for stress in police work and I have been to other trainings involving stress management and I have learned to be open-minded and to see things better,” said Coon.

“It’s been very helpful,” said one social worker from a Cree community who requested anonymity for this article. She came to the conference for both personal and professional reasons, having lost her own mother to suicide three years earlier.

“I am just like a survivor of suicide and I think that I was embarrassed or ashamed or scared to tell people that my mother committed suicide because it’s my mother. It’s usually teenagers but when it comes to someone like a mentor, someone that you look up to, it’s really difficult,” she said. “So I am a survivor and my kids are survivors too. Here I learned how to approach them and how to tell my kids about what my mother did.”

John Matoush, the Cree Youth Grand Chief, said he thought the conference was a good experience despite the morbid subject matter.

“For sure the stories there are so real and some of them are quite devastating to hear,” Matoush acknowledged. “But the issues that we have been discussing and the stories we’ve heard also give you the reality of the other nations and what they are dealing with. They are similar to our stories in the Cree Nation. I think the important thing here is the hope we feel. There is a lot of hope within the conference and there is a lot of hope in the stories that are being told.”