‘We’re losing too many youth. It needs to end’

Local family joins province-wide rally calling for stronger suicide prevention strategy

Lynn Harper, second from right, was part of a small group who came to Joe Hargrave’s office in Prince Albert Thursday to demonstrate in solidarity with the Walking with Our Angels group. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Lynn Harper’s niece was just 11 years old when she died by suicide last January.

Since her niece’s death, Harper said she’s heard about a young person’s death by suicide “weekly” since.

“There needs to be a better plan,” Harper said.

“There needs to be a plan and support for our youth that we lose. We’re losing too many youth. It needs to end.”

Harper was part of a small group of supporters who stood outside of Prince Albert Carlton MLA Joe Hargrave’s office Thursday as part of a larger, province-wide demonstration in support of Tristen Durocher.

Rallies were held across the province, including in Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert and Meadow Lake to call for meaningful legislation for suicide prevention. The rally was also to show solidarity for Durocher, whose case will be heard in court today. The Saskatchewan government and Wascana Park Authority are seeking to evict him and his tipi from the park, as its presence violates local bylaws.

Durocher walked from La Ronge to Regina before beginning a 44-day fast — one day for each of the Saskatchewan Party MLAs who voted against an NDP motion calling for a Saskatchewan suicide prevention strategy.  

That bill, Bill 618, was put forward by Cumberland MLA Doyle Vermette.

The Saskatchewan Party has argued that the bill isn’t needed, as they already have a plan, Pillars for Life.

The document was introduced in May by Minister for Rural and Remote Health Warren Kaeding. He said it’s based on material from the Mental Health Commission of Canada and a review of services in other jurisdictions.

It sets out a list of Year 1 goals based on five pillars: specialized supports, training, awareness, research and reducing the potential for suicide in at-risk facilities like hospitals.

Suicide prevention expert Jack Hicks, who worked on the prevention plans put forward by Nunavut and by the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, said the province’s plan has no clear path to implementation and sets goals “so vague as to be meaningless.”

Hicks said it doesn’t get at the root of why Saskatchewan’s suicide rate, which was roughly double the national average in 2018, is so high in the first place.

Nor does it address the underlying reasons for high suicide rates among northern communities, Indigenous people or youth. The word “trauma” does not appear in the plan, which Hicks takes as a sign that First Nations and Métis concerns are not adequately represented. The document is only eight pages long, three of which are taken up by the bibliography and the introduction.

Hicks said those gaps raise questions about whether the plan is useful for guiding public policy. 

“The suicide rate for a young First Nations woman is about 30 times the national average in that demographic,” Hicks said. “That’s the kind of statistic that demands an explanation.”

When asked, Kaeding said the plan is more of a “starting point” than a fixed strategy, saying its progression could change over time. He noted suicide is a complex problem and acknowledged there is no “silver bullet” to solve it, but argued that if the plan “saves just one life, then it is worth it.”

He said the plan aims to serve the entire population, which is why it doesn’t discuss specific communities at length.

“Suicide is a provincial concern,” he said. “There is no one specific entity that we’re going to be able to fund along that line.”

Many critics have also said the Pillars for Life plan has no binding legislation, making it 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 while walking through Prince Albert.

“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.”

In Regina, some people showed up at the Legislative Grounds, in Wascana Park where Tristan Durocher’s tipi is set up

Included in that mix were people from outside the city, as well as a video crew shooting a promotional video for Julie Paul, and her powwow regalia designs.

“It’s good, what he’s doing,” said traditional powwow dancer Lee Desjarlais.

Desjarlais, one of the participants in the video, added “It’s good that he’s trying to get more funding for everything to do with mental health.”

Lee Desjarlais dances in Wascana Park on Thursday, September 3, 2020 (Marjorie Roden/Herald Contributor)

Among those who watched and took some photos of the performance in the park was Megan (declined to provide a last name), a member of the Ahtahkakoop First Nation.

Her travel companion Leona, an elder also from the Ahtahkakoop First Nation, has nothing but respect for Durocher. By the same token, Elder Leona was also riled up about the court appearance.

“(Durocher) is being charged for being on Indian land, which is wrong,” Elder Lorna said emphatically, “It doesn’t matter if the government’s working on evicting him, it’s still a park. It’s still land for everyone and it should be shared.”

As the unification of artists seems to have become a theme of Durocher’s camp, including musicians a few days earlier. Elder Leona’s travel companion Megan was no different.

“My friend Megan makes these little original pins, for suicide awareness,” Elder Leona stated, proudly showing one of the pins Megan had made her that was now attached to her scarf.

Megan had also taken part in the trek to Regina earlier this summer, and had a lot of strong words concerning Durocher’s fasting ceremony, as well as the circumstances leading up to it.

“I hear our leaders out here, speaking about how our youth are so sacred…and yet, where are they? As leaders, the Sask Party should be working with this young man. They should be talking with him. We need to teach our youth how to become those leaders, how to communicate, how to find a remedy that’s beneficial to everybody.”

Elder Leona and Megan made the trip from Ahtahkakoop First Nation to support Durocher. (Marjorie Roden/Herald Contributor)

Sask. Party ministers have visited Durocher’s camp. They visited, listened to what Durocher said spoke about their plan, Pillars For Life. Durocher, in a Facebook post, said he was disappointed and felt like the ministers hadn’t truly listened to what he had to say.

Elder Leona added, “People come and go, but there should be more support for this young man. Every community should be standing up with (Durocher).”

Travel companion Megan agreed, adding “What Tristen Durocher is doing here, what these young boys are doing here, these leaders, these young leaders, is for everyone. So why not, why not? I am completely baffled, and this is why I’m here.

“I’m really disappointed with the Sask Party, and the complete denial of this bill. This is a bill that’s going to improve everyone’s life, and all of our families’ lives. Everyone is going to be affected by this bill. (Durocher) is not only thinking of our (Indigenous) people, he’s thinking about everybody out there, and I think that the Sask Party is completely wrong.”

Back in Prince Albert, Harper said what’s been done to this point is far from adequate.

“We’re losing too many youth to suicide and there aren’t enough resources locally or provincially to help the youth around here. A lot of children and youth don’t have the right support and the parents of these youth don’t know where to go, what to do or how to help their children if they need help,” she said.

“There is just not enough. Not enough speaking about it, not enough awareness around here to help young adults or anybody.”

When Bill 618 was defeated, Harper said she was “frustrated.

“We need something in place. There have been too many suicides in the past couple of years. There has to be something we can do to prevent this or help the youth to let them know that it’s okay to have issues and to not be afraid to speak up,” she said.

“To let the know that it’s okay, it’s not some stigma. There should be a plan in place. Saskatchewan has the highest rates of suicide for youth in Canada. That has to say a lot.”

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 or through mobile crisis, (306) 764-1011.

If you are in immediate danger, you can call 911.