‘We are the hope. Change is coming’

Northern men look to inspire hope and send a clear message that more must be done as their journey from La Ronge to Regina continues

Tristen Durocher , front, is walking to Regina from La Ronge to call on the government to pass a suicide prevention strategy. His walk came through Prince Albert on July 10, 2020 (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Tristen Durocher’s message boomed like an incoming storm from the north when he took the microphone from Sheryl Kimbley outside of the Allen Bird Memorial Gym Friday.

Durocher hails from Buffalo Narrows. On July 2, he, along with a small group of supporters, began a weeks-long walk to Regina. Once he arrives, he will begin a hunger strike. His goal is to push the government to take real action on suicide prevention. Friday evening, his group crossed the North Saskatchewan River and paraded, with supporters waving, honking and joining in, to the Prince Albert Grand Council grounds on the hill between Eighth and Ninth Avenue West. There, they stopped for a feast and to rest for the night.

Durocher led the procession, eagle feathers held high, silently inspiring hope for those who have been calling out for help, and to be heard, and for supports so their loved ones —their young ones — can stop dying.

Durocher is a fiddler. He grew tired of playing at funerals for young people who died by suicide.

But what prompted his 600-km plus journey was the unanimous defeat of a bill created by NDP MLA Doyle Vermette that would have seen Saskatchewan create a suicide prevention strategy.

“We’re sick of indifference. It kills. It is lethal,” Durocher said in Prince Albert Friday.

“You are allowing us to bury ourselves in high numbers.”

Durocher said he’s sick of the indifference for “something like that bill that aimed to save some of our children because they are hurting.”

“We bury them every winter,” he said. “They’re losing so much hope.”

An average of 144 people die by suicide in Saskatchewan each year. More than 2,200 people have died by suicide in the province since 2005, the provincial coroner’s service has said.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for people aged 10-49 in northern Saskatchewan.

Durocher has covered over 241 km since he began his walk. He began in a cemetery in La Ronge. It’s one that has been the site of burials of children who have died by suicide.

He’s not alone on his journey. He’s been joined by Christopher Merasty of Men of the North, as well as by Myles Cook and a small support team.

Christopher Merasty, centre, carrying cross, is accompanying Tristen Durocher on his walk to Regina. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

They’ll accompany him as he takes each step towards the legislature.

“Tristen inspired me,” Merasty said.

“A couple of weeks ago he came up to me and asked me what I thought about the bill they unanimously voted against. For me, it wasn’t a doubt or a question of yes or no. It was an automatic yes. We’re doing this.”

From there, he said, ideas started flowing in. They decided to carry a flag on a road and a cross through the cities.

“When I used to live in La Loche, when they were going through a suicide crisis there, losing four to five children a week … I was going to protest walk for that. I was going to go from La Loche to Prince Albert carrying a cross,” he said.

There are days the journey becomes physically tough. But it’s all those who are hurting who keep them going.

“We travelled 39 km the third day. We couldn’t walk another step,” he said.

“What kept us going was the thoughts and the struggles that so many of our youth are facing today. Every man, woman and child struggling today —  that’s what keeps us going.”

As Tristen walks, Merasty explains, he sets an example for others.

“The example is don’t give up,” he said.

“We are the hope. Change is coming.”

***

As Durocher and Merasty have walked, the support they’ve received has grown.  A few days ago, Durocher began to wear through the soles on his shoes. Sheryl Kimbley of the PAGC brought him some new ones, donated by Kevin Roberts in La Ronge. Richard Ahenakew of Prince Albert donated another pair for a fourth member of Durocher’s team.

This week, their van got stuck. Métis Nation Regional Director Sherry McLennan stepped up and rented the walkers a new one. More have donated, too, extending the use of the vehicle for the rest of the men’s journey. Others have brought traditional medicines or dropped off cases of water to keep the men hydrated.

MLA Doyle Vermette came out and cooked the walkers dinner.

“The support was overwhelming,” Merasty said.

“Just uplifting. Even as they drive by us and honk and wave, stop by and unload 20 to 30 cases of water for us. The donations and everything — just phenomenal.”

While Merasty is inspired by Durocher, he too has been touched by suicide.

Someone very close to him attempted to end their lives a couple of years ago. They had to raise money to get them the support they needed, and even then, it wasn’t local. They had to send their family member away for help.

 “Why can’t we have that in northern Saskatchewan?” Merasty asked.

“Why can’t we have something for our youth in northern Saskatchewan and keep them in the community. We don’t have to send them to some community they have no idea about. They’re not going to get anything out of it.”

Merasty would like to see everyone come to the table and work together on a solution, whether they’re First Nations, Métis or non-Indigenous.

“Let’s put down those walls, come to the table and work on this together,” he said.

Merasty said he will be with Durocher every step of the way to protect him.

He says the hunger strike is something Durocher wants to do alone, but Merasty’s organization, Men of the North, is about protecting people, and that’s what he’s going to do.

As they continue, so will the support of people like Kimbley and McLennan, who have vowed they will amplify Durocher’s voices until those in power hear, and heed, his words.

Kimbley first met Durocher through the Northern Spirits program. She became quite close to him.

“I have always said at any table I sit at, we can’t speak for the youth. We have to invite them to the table we sit at. We have to give them a voice,” she said.

Tristen Durocher speaks outside of the Allen Bird Memorial Gym in Prince Albert on July 10, 2020. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

“We have to look at this as a time to say ‘Why aren’t we doing this more with boards and committees?’ (The youth) know better than us and we need to quit speaking for them.”

“Tristen is one of those people who said ‘Enough is enough.’ He said ‘I got tired of playing at funerals and I’m going to do something.’ I believe in them. I know they can do this.”

While Kimbley was working to organize Durocher’s welcome in Prince Albert, McLennan was also there, greeting him and joining him for a few kilometres.

“I support Tristen. I stand with him and I know this is a very important issue,” she said.

“We need to support him and support our youth because they are our future. We want to stand with them.”

Joining Kimbley, McLennan, Durocher and Merasty on the road Friday was someone else who’s been calling for a suicide prevention bill.

NDP Leader Ryan Meili joined the men south of Spruce Home and walked with them as they paraded through Prince Albert.

“I have been watching what Tristen has been up to. It’s amazing to see this grassroots response to … (rejecting a)  suicide prevention strategy. This is a response of people who lost loved ones who said ‘That is something we cannot accept.’”

Meili said he wants the Saskatchewan Party to hear Durocher’s message. He said they’d be happy to go back and have a one-day emergency sitting of the legislature to pass a bill and begin a suicide prevention strategy.

“For Tristen and Chris and this whole group to take on this trek to Regina, is an amazing message about how important it is to get this right,” Meili said.

“We would be there the moment the government asks. We hope they listen to Tristen. If they didn’t listen to Doyle Vermette, maybe for partisan reasons, I hope they’ll listen to Tristen and all the people following him across the province.”

***

Speaking in front of a crowd of a few dozen Friday, Durocher’s message was clear.

“A bill was voted down — that vote was unanimous,” he said.

“What that means is they unanimously don’t give a s–t. They just think, not our kids, not our problem.”

The bill was supported by the NDP, but didn’t receive support from the Saskatchewan Party. The Sask. Party instead touted their plan. Pillars of Life: The Saskatchewan Suicide Prevention Plan, which outlines a collaborative approach to suicide prevention.

“Mental health continues to be a high priority for our government, our health system and our communities,” Minister of Rural and Remote Health Warren Kaeding said, according to the National Observer.

The province’s suicide prevention strategy states that it will co-ordinate activities to promote life and reduce risk factors related to death by suicide in Saskatchewan.

“This plan will guide activities specific to suicide prevention based on Saskatchewan’s context. It was informed by careful consideration of approaches across the country and international best practice,” Kaeding said.

Critics, though, say that the plan, which has no binding legislation, is effectively useless. An effective plan, they say, would have legislation attached to hold it accountable. Durocher is one of those critics.

“The government did not want to legislate any accountability,” he said.

“That (NDP bill) wanted to legislate some accountability. It was a unanimous ‘No thanks, we’d love to continue to do nothing.’ That (for me) was the last straw.”

Durocher thanked political leaders, at all levels, who take the time to listen to and work with youth. But he had harsh words for those who, he said, take three-day trips to conferences across Canada and buy homes with million-dollar views while the people they serve suffer.

He spoke out against photo ops and quick visits that, he says, amounted to not much but politicians patting themselves on the back for a job well done.

Instead, Durocher wants real change.

His message has resonated with many, who have joined him on his walk, in spirit. Durocher asked on Facebook for those who have lost loved ones to send him their names and photos, so he can carry them with him on his way.

“Some families sent me five. Some families sent me a picture of their husband and their children, because they lost their children and their husband couldn’t handle it so he took his life. I’m pretty inspired by the profound resilience of that woman to keep on walking and the profound resilience of families that have lost five loved ones by continuing to keep walking.”

It’s those people Durocher is walking for.

“We have strong people. Nobody should have to bury their child and it’s happening all the time. It’s an epidemic.”

Durocher said there are families who sent photos of their loved ones who died by suicide, and they just days later, messaged again with another photo.

Tristen Durocher, right, leads walkers through Prince Albert on July 10, 2020. Durocher is walking from La Ronge to Regina to protest government inaction on a suicide prevention strategy. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

“It needs to be taken seriously.”

These stories, as heartbreaking as they are, are the message Durocher wants the province to hear. It’s the message he wants the whole country to hear, that the support offered to this point is not enough — that more needs to be done, and any plan needs to come with legislation to hold it accountable.

“We have a long way to go. I’m very joyful, I’m very hopeful, because this is just our first city and we have two to go. We’re only going to gain momentum as we go,” Durocher said.

“We’re going to keep on breaking Canada’s heart with the realities of what’s happening to us until Canada’s heart opens and they care. And they see that we’re not a number. We’re not statistics. We have faces, we have names, we have voices that matter.”

“Our whole country needs to see that. Let’s pray we open their eyes and they actually do care and are horrified by what they see because it’s been what we’ve been living through for the past 150 years.”

“O Canada, you can do better.”

—With files from Michael Bramadat-Willcock, Local Journalism Initiative reporter, Canada’s National Observer

If you are or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, help is available 24/7. Support can be found at the Canada Suicide Prevention Service website. If you are in immediate danger, you can call 911.

*This story was corrected to reflect that while Kimbley delivered shoes to Durocher, they were donated by Kevin Roberts of La Ronge. The Herald regrets the error.

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