First Nations battle suicide epidemic – by Karen McKinley (Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal – February 17, 2013)

Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

With many people experiencing hurt, depression and anger, they must take responsibility and work to heal themselves if they want to be whole again, says Nishnawbe Aski Nation.

NAN is bringing that message to a youth and family forum aimed at addressing youth suicide and family problems. To prepare and help raise funds, NAN hosted a prayer breakfast, donation gathering and silent auction at St. Paul’s United Church on Saturday. Around 30 people sat down in the basement of the Thunder Bay church to enjoy a meal and discuss topics surrounding suicide and how faith can help heal the psychological wounds.

“Nishnawbe Aski Nation is hosting what we are calling the Embrace Life Forum on March 6, 7, and 8 at St. Paul’s church,” said Goyce Kakegamic, deputy grand chief for NAN in an interview on Saturday. “It aims to discuss issues like prescription drug abuse, suicide and find ways for families to come together to address those issues.

“This is not a gathering to assess blame, it more about how we can accept responsibility to address these things.”
He said blaming factors does not solve problems. The only way they can tackle these problems is to find out how families can come together, offer support and communicate effectively.

The forum will include workshops for youths and parents, as well as other activities like cooking demonstrations. Kakegamic said they will be stressing family values and good physical and spiritual health.

Kakegamic said they have been working with St. Paul’s United Church since the church took the initiative to reach out to NAN about three years ago. He said NAN talked with several churches about how they could reach out to their people. Many didn’t have much money, but St. Paul’s has a gymnasium. The church started hosting monthly volleyball games for youth and provided pizza at their own expense. They have been working on initiatives ever since.

“It’s great to see one of the major churches in the city reach out to us,” he said.

When NAN decided to host Embrace Life Forum, St. Paul’s endorsed it and agreed to house it.

There was never any tension or controversy when it came to working with a church to discuss First Nations issues. Kakegamic said anything to do with residential school abuses are a separate issue.

“There are those with anger towards the churches over abuses, but those will be dealt with in their own time,” he said. “This is about reaching out and connecting with the community to strengthen families.”

The forum is crucial to help support families, said Kakegamic. In NAN communities since 1987, 460 youths between age 10 and 20 have taken their own lives. He and many deputy grand chiefs have attended funerals and counselled grieving families.

“There is no more haunting sound than a mother wailing over the death of her child,” Kakegamic said. “Parents and families have to take responsibility and ask themselves if they want to turn this around. We are hurting as a nation, so we must take a hard look at ourselves.”

During a speech to the crowd, Kakegamic quoted the Book of John, when Jesus came across a sick man lying in the street. Jesus asked the man if he wanted to be healed. He said that is the question First Nations have to ask themselves because ultimately it lies with them if they want to move forward and heal as people, families and a culture.

Rev. Heather Landry, pastor of St. Paul’s United Church, said NAN is leading the entire forum, but they have developed a friendship over the years. They have worked with students who come to school at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School to welcome them to the city with events like dinners.

“We want to let them know they have friends in the city, they are not alone,” Landry said. “We approached them years ago to build relations and be caring people.”

Landry added she wholeheartedly endorsed the forum. When Kakegamic told her how many NAN youth had committed suicide since 1987, it brought her to tears. As a mother, grandmother and human she wanted to understand that kind of pain and support those who were going through it.

She added that society as a whole must address these problems. Everyone has to be aware of the wounds these tragedies create between communities and ask if they want to address it.

“At St. Paul’s, the answer is ‘yes,’” Landry said. “It’s not a great big political thing, it’s simply reaching out and caring.”

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