Hundreds of First Nations and Inuit individuals from all over Quebec descended on the Sheraton Hotel November 24-29 to talk about the loved and lost and how to keep from losing more loved ones.
Since 2001, the First Nations and Inuit Suicide Prevention Association of Quebec has held an annual event in Montreal at the end of November to help those who work on the frontlines as well as those who have lost a loved one to suicide.
While this event began as a simple convention to refresh frontline workers with new techniques and provide them with a safe environment to vent about their own stressors, it has evolved into much more over the years.
“Originally it was about providing support for frontline workers because they need support in the communities,” explained executive director Thelma Nelson.
“But, as we go forward and more people find out about this event, more come to Montreal for this healing. At first it was just individuals and youth, but now we are seeing whole families come to the event, especially if there’s been a recent suicide. They come for something to help them in their grieving process,” she added.
Nelson, who is from Kahnawake, said the three-day pre-conference followed by the three-day conference for families was incredibly busy, but that this year’s event had taken on a particularly sober tone as there had been a suicide in the Obedjiwan community during the conference.
She said the news made the event more intense for the participants because everyone at the conference had already been affected by suicide in their own lives.
“There are a lot of people who are here to begin their healing process and this just made it heavier. Many are tired because they are taking in so much information and hopefully they will return to their communities and share this stuff with everyone else so that those who couldn’t come have the opportunity to pick up new tools to help their families, friends, students and community members,” said Nelson.
In total, Nelson said there were over 600 at this year’s conference, with some coming for only the pre-conference or just the conference while others stayed for the entire six days. Throughout the event they celebrated this year’s theme: “Celebrating our Strengths, Honouring Life.”
Nelson said this theme was chosen because Quebec’s Indigenous people are very strong as are the frontline workers in their communities. A lot of this event is about those workers coming together to share what works and while that something may be small, it could be just the thing that prevents another suicide.
At the same time, this conference is all about finding what works based on the needs of both the frontline workers and the families.
“Throughout the year, people call me just to cry and tell me that there has been another suicide in their community. There are others who call and they will talk about what is missing. So when I have an issue comes more than once, I realize that this is something we should work on,” said Nelson.
In that vein, the conference is always trying add new features. This year the event added “Conference Idol” to their nightly entertainment whereby attendees were encouraged to sing karaoke, laugh and have fun in the evenings. With much of the days focussed on grieving and workshops, Nelson said that singing provided for a perfect evening’s relaxation and that she even did her best Ginette Reno rendition.
According to Mike Standup, an Aboriginal healer who has worked at the event for the last seven years, the conference was once again working like a well-oiled machine. Every year he attends the event to help attendees deal with some of the emotional fall-out that can spill over after some of the workshops and grieving sessions.
Over the last seven years he said he has seen the event evolve a great deal.
“The sheer number of people has increased at this event, plus there has been an increase in the kinds of programs offered. In the seven years I’ve been here I have never gone to any of the workshops because I am always in my healing room helping people but that is how I have always worked and that is how it will always be,” said Standup.
This year’s conference brought Crees from many different branches of the Cree entities to work and share alongside other First Nations.
Among them was Great Whale’s Ruth Masty, who was attending the event on behalf of the Department of Justice and Corrections under the Cree Regional Authority.
“In my field, I work with a lot of individuals who are going through the justice system and need information. I have a lot of one-on-one conversations with these people about how they got to where they are now and I find that some of the workshops that I have attended are helpful with this process.
“I took a workshop on complex trauma and one with Jane Middleton Moss about brain development in infancy, between the ages of 0-5. I’m also attending some workshops on bullying which I find interesting as part of the work I do is about prevention,” said Masty.
Also from the same department, Steven Tapiatic spoke of how the event had added depth and understanding to his perspective.
“I have learned that grieving is a big part of life and that a lot of people need support, even the ones who don’t seem like they need it. I am here to support a friend who recently lost his brother,” said Tapiatic.
Attending the event was former Grand Chief Matthew Mukash, who was there on behalf of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB).
“It’s good to see so many people here, especially all of these young people. It’s great that they can connect with the other First Nations people, like the Inuit.
“This is something that our communities really need because there are a lot of things that we have had to deal with and we need to reconnect to the old ways while trying to understand where we are in life and doing something about it. If you are having problems, this is a good place to be as there are a lot of good resource people who have a lot of experience in what they do, be it suicide or family related,” said Mukash.
Among the many healers presenting workshops and Elders holding healing ceremonies at the event, there were others on hand to simply present information intended on helping frontline workers and struggling families.
Corporal Jacques Théberge from the RCMP’s Drug and Organized Crime Awareness Service was there to educate those interested in learning about the current face of drug addiction.
“We have drug displays on the tables for everybody to look at. People have been coming to our table to see the different drugs and to ask questions. They want to know what these drugs are and how people are using them.
“Our displays show what these substances look like and how they can be identified. Plus we have a lot of documentation on prevention,” explained Théberge.
Dennis Windigo, a psychotherapist from Thunder Bay who has done a lot of work with the Cree through the CBHSSJB, was hired to put on workshops and healing events at the conference.
For the frontline workers he provided a three-day training on Aboriginal focusing-oriented therapy and complex trauma.
For families dealing with loss caused by a suicide, Windigo provided different therapeutic workshops including one special event for those grieving through the holidays.
“I offer them different ways that they can approach the holiday season with the loss of their loved one as perhaps it is a first Christmas without that person or perhaps they’ve had many Christmases without their loved one and it is a very difficult time.
“I may tell them things like to remember them at this time and make it about their life and what they remember about them as it stimulates dialogue between family members. It also helps them to grieve and to work towards accepting the loss and to acknowledge them at this time of the year as they were a part of this season when they were around. There are usually good memories of this person and so you need to remember those things.
“I suggest picking up the pieces of that person’s life. For example: maybe they really liked rice pudding and this is what they always contributed to the Christmas meal and so maybe someone else can bring rice pudding in memory of them,” said Windigo.
If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal this holiday season, help is never far away. Don’t be afraid to reach out.