P.A. group rallies in support of northern Sask. man demanding government action on suicide epidemic

Joyce McKenzie, an organizer of the rally held on Aug. 7, 2020, tied ribbons in the colours of suicide prevention around a candle showing a photo of her niece. She died by suicide at 14 years old. (Jayda Taylor/Daily Herald)

Warning: This story contains discussions of suicide.

Joyce McKenzie desperately hopes Tristen Durocher’s action on suicide prevention sends a strong message to the government.

“I want the government to realize that it’s not easy to be losing loved ones and things like that, and just can’t sweep us on the side and say ‘forget it,’” she said.

That was a common frustration among about 30 participants who attended a suicide prevention rally in Prince Albert on Friday evening in support of Durocher, who’s demanding the province pass meaningful legislation addressing the suicide epidemic.

He and Men of the North founder Christopher Mirasty walked over 630 km from Air Ronge to the Saskatchewan Legislature in Regina starting at the beginning of July. When they arrived last week, Durocher began a hunger strike.

“How many more young people have to die before they do something? These are our future generations. We just can’t ignore them, we have to stand up and stand with them so we don’t lose as many as we’ve lost already,” said McKenzie, who helped organize the rally.

Joyce McKenzie hands out a ribbon to a participant at the suicide prevention rally at Prince Albert City Hall on Aug. 7, 2020. Organizers brought roughly 144 ribbons to represent the average number of people who take their lives in Saskatchewan per year. (Jayda Taylor/Daily Herald)

According to the government’s suicide prevention plan, which was released in May, an average of 144 people die by suicide annually in the province.

“That’s the average, so the numbers fluctuate more than that and I also wonder about the lost lives that don’t get recorded as a suicide,” added Jennifer Lenny, who helped McKenzie to organize the rally.

“I’m hoping that (participants) realize the seriousness of suicide in our community, and that this affects all communities, especially in the Indigenous and northern communities…and to acknowledge the sacrifices that Tristen, Walking With Our Angels and Christopher Mirasty are doing.”

Jennifer Lenny holds up a sign asking for donations to Walking With Our Angels at the suicide awareness rally in Prince Albert on Aug. 7, 2020. (Jayda Taylor/Daily Herald)

Durocher says the government’s plan, called Pillars for Life: The Saskatchewan Suicide Prevention Plan, is lacking accountability on the province to implement meaningful change.

At the time that it was released, Rural and Remote Health Minister Warren Kaeding said the province was putting $1.2 million to its first year actions. These include specialized supports, training, awareness, means restriction and means safety and research, surveillance and education.

At the Prince Albert rally, McKenzie invited participants to step into the middle of the circle of people and share their stories.

She, herself, shared that she lost her 14-year-old niece to suicide in 2017, along with her cousin. Following the sharing circle, McKenzie handed out ribbons for people to hang around the city or take home to honour their loved ones.

She tied ribbons around a candle with her niece’s photo on it.

Roxanne Philibert also stepped into the circle, sharing that her 16-year-old son Jordan died by suicide in 2015.

Philibert drove down to Regina to visit Durocher’s camp on Wednesday. Jordan is one of several victims of suicide pictured around his teepee.

Roxanne Philibert’s son Jordan is pictured (centre, back) outside of the teepee at Tristen Durocher’s camp. (Facebook)

Following his death, she started making what she calls ‘compassion quilts‘ to gift to people who have been impacted by suicide, including Durocher.

“Every time someone is suicidal or wants to die or has died, I get in my sewing room and I just get so focused and I want to do something and I feel trapped and I feel like I can’t do anything,” said Philibert, adding that she needs to continue to work to support her family.

“I do what I can; however, that’s why I find what Tristen is doing so honourable. They took action and they are attempting to make a difference.”

Philibert wants the government to fund more immediate help when someone seeks it during a time of crisis. Ideally, she’d like to see separate emergency rooms dedicated to mental health crises, staffed with psychiatric professionals.

Working at a local school, she said it’s common to see anti-bullying posters with a sad-looking child leaning against the wall. One of her friends, she said, had a son who died by suicide as the result of bullying.

“We’re far beyond that little bullying poster. We need to show that bullying poster with a graveyard or a body. We need to really let people know that suicide is the end and it’s serious.”

McKenzie and Lenny encouraged participants to send donations to Walking With Our Angels at the email westandtogether@menofthenorth.net for legal costs. Durocher has received orders to leave the park for breaking bylaws by camping and burning fires there, for example.

“The premier didn’t even say hello or have the courage to meet me. The subordinates he sent, two condescending ministers, basically just came to tell me they’re doing enough when Pillars (for) Life is a waste of paper and empty promises that have no accountability for any followthrough,” said Durocher in a Facebook post.

“The only way I will be leaving this ceremony is if I’m dragged out.”