Port Elgin, Ont.
“We’re not going to talk about statistics: we all know them,” said Canon Ginny Doctor, Indigenous ninistries co-ordinator for the Anglican Church of Canada, to a plenary on suicide prevention at the eighth National Anglican Sacred Circle. “Many in this room have been touched by suicide; we know that there is a lot of healing to be done.”
The statistics are indeed grim. The suicide rate for Aboriginal male youth is 126 per 100,000 as opposed to 24 per 100,000 for non-Aboriginal young men, according to the Centre for Suicide Prevention. For young Aboriginal women, it is 25 per 100,000, compared with five per 100,000 among their non-Aboriginal peers.
The plenary was an opportunity for those involved in suicide prevention programs in Indigenous parishes across the Canadian church to share their experiences and best practices.
“Having been a priest in Alaska for a number of years, I had to do a lot of burials for folks, mostly young people who had committed suicide,” Doctor said, by way of introduction. “The comments I used to hear from people made it sound like suicide was a great experience. For someone who is in despair, particularly young people, to hear that may give them the edge they need to do the same thing.”
Adequate training for lay people and clergy involved in suicide prevention, she stressed, was key to addressing the suicide crisis among Indigenous peoples.
The plenary’s first presentation, given by diocesan Indigenous bishop of Missinipi Adam Halkett and Council of the North chair and diocesan bishop of Saskatchewan Michael Hawkins, focused on their diocese’s use of the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) program and collaborative work with the Prince Albert Grand Council.
With help from the national church, the diocese has been able to provide free training to Anglicans and non-Anglicans from at-risk communities. The diocese adds a “spiritual emphasis” to the program, said Hawkins.
The diocese is also working with the Prince Albert Grand Council-which represents 12 First Nations band governments in Saskatchewan-on a program called Embrace Life, which focuses on suicide prevention, intervention and recovery.
Hawkins described the partnership as a great move, saying, “I think they [Grand Council] grew in appreciation for what the church can do, and we grew in appreciation of building bridges as opposed to competition.”
The plenary also featured a presentation from Dorothy Russell-Patterson and the Rev. Norm Casey from the Six Nations territory of Ohsweken, near Brantford, Ont., who both emphasized the importance of suicide prevention.
Patterson explained that in February 2014, she and a number of others who shared her concerns about suicide rates set about forming a group, with the help of an Anglican Healing Fund grant, to “reduce the stigma of suicide and help individuals and families explore life-building strategies.”
Patterson’s group worked alongside government-funded agencies already active in suicide prevention at Ohsweken to create safe spaces where people could share their grief over suicide. Just before last Christmas, they held a dinner called “Remembering Our Loved Ones” to which they invited people who they knew “were hurting.”
The event was “very, very successful, and heart-wrenching,” she said. It was so popular that people have asked if it will happen again.
Casey talked about the music camp that has been held for the past two years at Ohsweken.
Inspired by a similar camp in Alaska that reduced suicide by a staggering 90% in some communities, Casey was curious to see if similar programming would work at the Six Nations.
In 2014, on a shoestring budget, he set up a music camp for children along similar guidelines. The camp, attended by 23 youth and six adults, gave participants training and practice in playing a variety of instruments, including guitar, fiddle, keyboard and mandolin.
In 2015, the camp was held again, this time with support from the band council as well as the Anglican Church of Canada.
“We started out with 46 registrations, and it just kept growing and growing,” Casey said. “It provides [youth] with new opportunities, new skills, new gifts that they didn’t even know they had. It builds on self-esteem, and it provides them an opportunity to do something other than just hang around in the neighbourhood.”
The final presentation was by the Rev. Nancy Bruyere, the church’s suicide prevention co-ordinator for western Canada and the Arctic, who shared her own painful past in speaking of the suicide crisis. Bruyere has lost several family members to suicide and survived a suicide attempt in her own youth.
But Bruyere also spoke of the role of spirituality in healing. In 2013, young people in her community started a pow-wow for National Suicide Prevention Day, she said, and “people came out to honour the loss of their loved ones. They came out to dance for healing for our people, healing for our families…it was very powerful.”
While these glimmers of hope may seem small in the darkness of the youth suicide epidemic in Indigenous communities, the presenters all expressed faith in the possibility that these actions would grow in their effects.
Doctor said she is working on a resource, to be published by the Anglican church and the Indigenous Theological Training Institute, that will contain advice and tips on how to provide care when suicide happens. The resource will be available by the end of the year for free distribution to lay workers and clergy across the country.
She closed the plenary by applauding those who had spoken. “It takes brave people,” she said, “to make positive change.”