For eight years now the Dialogue for Life Network has been bringing together First Nations from Quebec, Labrador and around the world to discuss suicide, its implications on First Nations communities and how better to help those affected by it.

Comprised of a three-day pre-conference for professionals, such as frontline workers, police and those who counsel in the field of mental health within First Nations communities, and then a three-day conference for families and youth who have been affected by suicide, this year’s event drew between 800-900 First Nations to the Delta Hotel in Montreal from November 27-December 2.

According to conference organizer Normand D’Aragon, the face of the conference has changed quite a bit since it began eight years ago as it has grown to accommodate just about everyone whose life has been affected by suicide. It originally started out as an event geared towards informing and educating frontline workers who dealt with suicide but now it has grown into a multifaceted event that offers something for professionals and also the families they help with specific components for youth.

D’Aragon said it is the programming for youth that has exploded in recent years and that this year the conference had between 250-300 youth attendees and presenters.

“One of the major differences this year was our focus on the importance of the youth stream. At every time slot throughout the conference there was at least three different workshops that were specifically for the youth,” said D’Aragon.

The theme of the conference was “From All Directions, Honouring Life Together.” D’Aragon said the theme was particularly suitable this year as the event brings First Nations together from all over Quebec, Nunavut, Nunavik and Labrador as well as from the United States and even Maori from New Zealand.

Having visited with the Maori on behalf of the Dialogue for Life Network earlier this summer, D’Aragon said the overseas attendees were a welcomed addition as they are just starting up their own suicide prevention strategies.

“We have so much in common with them even though they are from the other side of the planet. Of course, the culture and context are different but the issues are so much alike,” said D’Aragon.

In catering to the new variety of clientele, particularly the younger generation, D’Aragon said the event offered two major workshops on bullying. One was geared towards frontline workers at the pre-conference and the other for youth during the conference.

For the youth specifically the event also offered a special workshop in collaboration with the National Aboriginal Health Organization and its National Aboriginal Role Model program. D’Aragon said the workshop was a remarkable success.

What really surprised the organizers this year was the popularity of the youth events, said D’Aragon, since every one of them was filled to capacity. There were also youth presenting workshops, particularly on how they have coped with suicide through various mediums such as writings and video-making. D’Aragon said at times the youth events were like mini film festivals.

Marissa Georgekish, 17, from Wemindji, was a workshop presenter at the conference. Having experienced the impacts of suicide and suicide attempts amongst the youth within her community, she decided to attend on behalf of her community.

“It is awesome being here. We have written stories about the people we have lost to suicide,” said Georgekish. She further explained that she was there because she wanted to put a positive spin on life for youth in this situation by helping people talk about their experiences through writing.

In terms of the social aspects of the event, D’Aragon said there was also another celebrated new addition – karaoke.

“It worked out really well. It was all about relaxing and having fun together in the evenings,” said D’Aragon who explained how a bit of silliness helped people blow off steam and form bonds together.

Like previous years, the conference put on its annual powwow to celebrate the diversity of the Native cultures of the participants and the gala evening and awards ceremony was also held to honour those who have made a difference when dealing with suicide.

Elder Robbie Matthew from Chisasibi was honoured at the gala for his lifelong achievement in transmitting culture, wisdom and Cree values. Also Innu Elder Maninoush Poker from Pakua Shipi was honoured similarly.

Whapmagoostui resident Buckley George, who has spina bifida and is confined to a wheelchair, was also given the youth award.

“He is a symbol for transforming obstacles into strength, wisdom and compassion for others. Building that kind of strength is really what we are after. When we have obstacles in life, instead of thinking about going to the negative side of things, we can transform them into positive strength and Buckley is a hero in the way he exemplifies this,” said D’Aragon.

Another major element at this year’s event was restorative justice and representatives from various First Nations’ justice departments were there to learn what they could in order to bring back new ideas to their communities.

Ronnie Otter from Waswanipi said he thoroughly benefited from the restorative justice seminars concerning youth.

“We learned how to facilitate restorative justice circles for youth involved in the criminal justice system or a school-based conflict. The circle brought people together to understand one another, to strengthen relationships between the accused and the victims, and to resolve community problems,” said Otter.

Losty Mamianscum was there as a researcher for the Crees, and attended various workshops and seminars. He explained he had learned a great deal about trauma at the event.

“There are a lot of people in the criminal justice system who have experienced trauma through family violence or various types of abuse and that changes their world view. When they experience something like that, it affects their ability to cope with certain emotions. It’s a factor in how they behave or why they get caught in the cycle of the revolving doors of the correctional institutions,” said Mamianscum.

When the Nation caught up with Mamianscum, he was in a workshop with Thunder Bay’s Dennis Windigo, who had recently been a presenter at the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association’s  (CWEIA) Family Violence Conference.

Windigeo, who offers workshops to Crees in the north through the Health Board, said a great deal of what he focuses on in his workshops is trauma. Whether that trauma stems from domestic violence or is a reaction to a suicide, Windigo uses similar techniques to help his clients heal.

“Whether I am talking about family violence and how partners hurt each other, I always go right back to the clients I am working with so that the healing is about them. There has to be a connection to the self for that healing to progress and move through. If I’m dealing with people who have been affected by suicide, I am getting them to connect with themselves about the person they lost and what they are dealing with. If they have loved ones who are attempting suicide, I will ask them how that impacts their lives and how that lives inside of them. I want to make a strong connection to it so that they can start to release the stress and worries about being under that pressure all of the time,” said Windigo.

A public health worker for the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay said he was at the conference to have a break from his job and take in a few workshops to help him deal with some of the stressors of his job and do some healing when it comes to suicide.

“My brother committed suicide when he was 14, and I was 19. It takes time for people to understand suicide and get to the healing part because it’s a big shock in your life? When that shock wears off and reality hits you, many people cope with it through drinking and drugging and I went through those stages. When I finally addressed it, I understood how to unblock all of those things that have been hurting my life. Grief does not necessarily have to come from that one stage, it could be a whole mess of things that just pile up,” he said.

He found the workshops particularly helpful as each individual he met had something new to contribute.

While the youth may have been the focus, there was a great deal going on for professionals at the event.

Debbie Dedam-Moutour hosted a table on behalf of the National Indian and Inuit Community Health Representatives Organization to present their resource materials to First Nations communities. While the majority of the products relate to smoking cessation, Dedam-Montour was presenting their latest tool, a book for children titled Sam’s Bear that explains mental development and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) to children.

“The story is told from the perspective of the child’s teddy bear and so it helps you understand in an gentle manner what is going on and how you can be supportive to a child who has FASD,” said Dedam-Montour.

Though the CWEIA did not end up presenting at the conference, members of the group were on hand to attend the event. CWEIA president Doris Bobbish is also on the Board of Directors for the Dialogue for Life Network.

Though the CWEIA was bumped off the schedule due to time constraints, their goal had been to present the organization, its mandates and vision and then look for feedback from other First Nations attending the workshop.

Though they didn’t present, Bobbish has made many contributions to the event over the last eight years.

“I have been with this organization from the very beginning. I was there the first time they did this conference where I spoke about working with individuals with persistent mental health issues and what the point-of-view is of frontline workers and how to deal with that,” said Bobbish.

Despite not having the CWEIA present, everyone the Nation spoke to, said the conference was a tremendous success.

However, according to D’Aragon, this year’s conference will never be as successful as the next one.