In a small sharing circle on a Saturday afternoon, elders spoke their truths around suicide in Denı́nu Kų́ę́ – Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories.
“We need resources here in the community. They need someone to talk to, someone they can call, someone that can help get them to treatment,” said Eva Villeneuve, one of a dozen elders working to build supports around suicide prevention.
Everyone in the tightknit 500-person Dene and Métis community has lost someone to suicide.
“There’s a lot of concerns, a lot of people talking about suicide in our community. There is a lot of alcohol and drugs in Fort Res. I have lost some friends to suicide,” she said.
Situated at the mouth of the Slave River, on the shores of Great Slave Lake, Fort Resolution has limited conventional supports for mental health.
However, for the last few years, Denı́nu Kų́ę́ First Nation has focused on bridging gaps by empowering membership through holistic training.
Villeneuve took part in a 12-day awareness workshop held mid-March facilitated by familiar faces – Ruby and Guy Prince, a Dakelh (Carrier) from northern British Columbia.
At the request of the First Nation, the couple have worked with the community in wellness development over the last six years delivering workshops on addiction, trauma, grief and more.
“When we first started, coming up here there was a social worker; there was a drug and alcohol counsellor. Now it’s really hard to get those and when you lose those kinds of supports or government funding it effects almost every family,” Guy said.
Ruby explained to APTN News that the suicide-awareness workshop followed a 14-day Residential School program.
“The one thing we were asked to do when we came back was to identify the healing components the elders themselves need to work through. What we can do to build a momentum to start the healing processes to carry that on for ourselves,” Ruby said.
The suicide-awareness workshop included daily sharing circles, storytelling and art therapy geared towards breaking stigma around mental health.
APTN attended the second day of the program as participants’ brainstormed affirmations they thought the community needed.
Elders wrote those positive messages such as “your life matters,” and “Speak Up and Reach Out, Let’s Prevent Suicide Together” on neon-coloured bristol board which served as signs for a suicide-awareness walk later on that day.
“You have to custom make your work to the community and look at their needs. Their signs reflect what resonates with them personally, and what they see and hear from the community themselves, Guy said.
Tommy and Joyce Beaulieu participated in the residential school healing program along with the suicide-awareness workshop.
“I’m doing the walk today to let them (community members) know they are loved and cared for and they are important people and their life matters,” Joyce said.
Tommy who lost his brother and nephew to suicide pointed to a sign taped on one of the trucks driving in the walk
“You see that sign that says First Nation rates are three times time as higher as non-first nation rates for suicide. That’s important, I hope more people stop for a minute and think about it,” he said.
After completion of the workshop the goal for Ruby and Guy will be to support Elders as they fufill cultural practices of mentorship in the community.
“It’s almost a self-sustaining wellness team. The talk now is to start planning on how we can connect better to the community, and to their own family members so that they can be more supportive and have stronger connections to support each other in the changes that will come about,” Guy said.
With more knowledge under their belt, elders like Villeneuve said they were now ready to respond to community wellness needs.
“I am proud of myself here listening to this workshop. I can take something home with me or if someone wants to talk with me be able to help them,” she said.