‘It gives me hope’: Sask. suicide prevention bill passes unanimously

Métis suicide prevention advocate Tristen Durocher said he's hoping for more cooperation with Indigenous communities and people across various health sectors

Cumberland MLA Doyle Vermette holds The Saskatchewan Strategy for Suicide Prevention Act. Photo courtesy of Doyle Vermette

The Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly unanimously passed The Saskatchewan Strategy for Suicide Prevention Act after Cumberland NDP MLA Doyle Vermette introduced it for a third time on Friday. 

“This to me is something that the people of our province that are struggling with mental health should be very proud that they have achieved,” Vermette said. 

“I’m glad they didn’t give up. So I didn’t give up and now look at what we have accomplished. People just said ‘it’s a crisis and we’re going to do something about it’ and they have.”

Vermette first tabled the bill in 2019 and introduced it again last June where it was unanimously voted down by majority Saskatchewan Party members of the legislature.

The province had pointed to Pillars for Life: The Saskatchewan Suicide Prevention Plan as an adequate solution without a bill. Vermette has long argued that binding legislation is needed.

He said it was families who have lost loved-ones to suicide that asked him to introduce the bill for a third time. He credited the public for making the legislation happen by making their voices heard. 

Minister for mental health and addictions Everett Hindley welcomed Vermette’s bill — without making new promises in terms of service delivery. He said to succeed all partners involved need to work together.

“I will begin by thanking the member for Cumberland for introducing this bill… I can’t possibly thank him enough for his dedication to this cause,” Hindley said. 

“We are focusing on continuing the implementation of the Pillars for Life plan with oversight from experts involved in overseeing Saskatchewan’s mental health and addictions plan. Pillars for Life addresses much of what is in the bill  — but the bill also formalizes the effort so that it transcends governments into the future. 

“I want to thank the front-line workers, the people who also take the phone calls, take the appointments — trying their very best to save lives. I’d also like to thank the people of Saskatchewan — for voicing their expectation of support for this legislation. Our shared goal is to assist people in getting the help they need so that lives can be saved.”

Métis musician Tristen Durocher has voiced that expectation loud and clear. In protest of the bill’s rejection last summer Durocher walked more than 600 kilometres from the Lac La Ronge Indian Band’s Fairchild reserve to Regina with a group of supporters.

Once there Durocher put up a tipi in Wascana Park across from the legislature and began a 44-day fasting ceremony — with the number of days representing those MLAs who voted down the bill.

“That should horrify people beyond who they voted for. Beyond the pickets that are on their front lawns. It should just be a human heart to human heart call to action to want to change this,” Durocher said.

“We have an undeniable right to a quality of life where we can make it to old age without having suicide, also known as hopelessness, be the leading cause of death.”

Surrounding the tipi were photos submitted to Durocher by families who lost loved ones to suicide.

“The youngest person on this lawn is 10 years old,” Durocher said. 

“We have to ask ourselves why so many people are arriving at a place of such profound hopelessness that they can’t even believe in tomorrow.”

Last August the province took Durocher to court for violating Wascana Park bylaws with his encampment. Justice Graeme Mitchell ruled the bylaws were in violation of the Charter rights to political and spiritual expression. Durocher’s fast didn’t end with any legislation and he never got to meet with Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe to talk about it in person.

NDP Leader Ryan Meili grilled Moe on his government’s rejection of the bill at election debates last October. 

Moe said Pillars for Life is endorsed by the Canadian Mental Health Association and is effective.

“Legislation is not required to work on something as important as suicides,” Moe said.

“The Pillars for Life strategy is working, is guiding us through the conversation around how we are engaging with our partners across the province on a very important conversation, one around suicides and, in particular, northern suicides.”

Hindley said public feedback made it clear that support for the bill was expected from the government. 

“I think this is where one of the benefits of an election comes into play. You hear from people directly on the doorsteps, over the phones, and on main street,” Hindley said.

“And what we heard…  last fall is that the bill brought forward by the member opposite was a very important one to the people of this province. We have been a government that listens to Saskatchewan people — and we heard that passing this legislation would be a meaningful step in supporting suicide prevention efforts across Saskatchewan.”

The change in tune and this week’s vote came as a shock to Durocher — now living in northern Manitoba where he works with schoolchildren as a fiddle instructor.  

“I was just stunned by the news — I just wasn’t expecting it. I wish them all the best in their progress and I hope that entails a lot of collaboration and cooperation with Indigenous communities and people across various health sectors. I think that’s important  — that (the bill) actually has potential to be community-based in its solutions,” Durocher said.

“It will come down to collaboration and cooperation — good-spirited intentions and a willingness to work together — not pseudo-consultations where people don’t seriously consider all the information they’re given. Healthcare workers on the frontlines and people who interact with demographics that are considered high risk need to be given voice. 

“I know there are a lot of people who will be ready to support and help because they’ve been waiting for acknowledgement and an opportunity to work on this.” 

Suicide among northern Indigenous youth in Saskatchewan remains disproportionately high and a drop in overall rates amid the pandemic hasn’t materialized in the First Nations community.

The province admitted its suicide prevention plan has been “impacted and slowed” by the pandemic response after the 2021 budget made no mention of northern Indigenous youth suicide in funding Pillars for Life.

“Over $1.24 million was invested towards Pillars for Life in the 2020-2021 budget and there’s an additional $1 million in this year’s budget to support year two actions,” Hindley said on Friday.

“Some of those ongoing actions include improving psychiatric access to patients accessing emergency rooms in the northwest part of Saskatchewan — further expanding mental health first aid training across the province — and enhancing research to support local suicide prevention with a specific focus on northern youth.”

Vermette said the Opposition will work with members across the aisle so that a strategy is in place within 180 days. 

“I think the bill is very clear. They’re going to have to reach out to organizations, leaders, frontline workers and families impacted by mental health and suicide. I’m hoping they’ll do what’s needed to save lives.”

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

In northern Saskatchewan, people with concerns about suicide can access HealthLine 811, Kids Help Phone or the Hope for Wellness chat line. You can learn more about suicide prevention in the province at Saskatchewan.ca