Healing through grief: 'If I wasn't doing what I'm doing ... I probably wouldn't be here'

When Mason Buffalo lost several family members to suicide, he nearly gave up. Instead he decided it was time for someone to speak up.

Maskwacis cemetery keeper dedicates his time to helping community through its darkest hours

Mason Buffalo works in the graveyard on the Samson Cree Nation. After losing four cousins to suicide, he uses his grief to find healing in his community. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Mason Buffalo carries a headstone to his cousin's grave. He lowers the concrete block to the ground at the base of a white cross. It hits the dirt with a thud. He rearranges the once-white angel figurines around it.

"I'm just getting emotional doing this," says Mason, who maintains the Samson Cree Nation cemetery in Maskwacis, where four of his cousins are buried. All four died by suicide before their 30th birthday.

"Look at all my family here that took their own life," he says, a catch in his voice.

Mason Buffalo, left, wants to show people in his community there's hope. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

"It's easy for me to just go string up and give up on everything," he says, tears in his eyes. "But I don't want to be that guy. I want to show people that there's hope in our community."

He has dedicated himself to helping others find that hope.

His life parallels many in the community. He has struggled: as a teen parent, as a former frontline firefighter, with alcohol and with mental health. In a community of 16,000 people, Mason says, it's surprisingly easy to feel alone. Trying to be there for others — in person and in spirit — has come to define him.

"If I wasn't doing what I'm doing right now, then I probably wouldn't be here," he says. "I'd probably be buried in this graveyard and that's my truth. Guaranteed, I probably would have been here right now if I didn't start helping other people."

The farm Mason Buffalo grew up on kept him close to nature and to family. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Mason, 33, grew up on his father's farm at Samson Cree Nation, playing with cousins who lived in nearby homes on the same stretch of dirt road. 

His transition to adulthood began abruptly before he was ready. At 15, he became a parent himself. In short order, he got a job at the community fire department.

On his first day, the first call that came in was about his cousin, Faron, a teen parent just like him. She had killed herself.

Three years later, in 2010, a call came in about his cousin, Tyrell. When he got to the house, he was directed to the garage, where he found his cousin's body on the floor.

"You can't unsee what you've seen working as a firefighter," he says. 

"Seeing my first cousin like that, lifeless, that's how it all started. From there, my life went downhill fast for one full year. And that's when I didn't want to live no more."

He left the reserve and moved to Toronto. But he couldn't get away.

In 2012, Mason got a call from his father, informing him his cousin Cody had died by suicide.

Mason decided to come home.

"Someone has to step up and take the lead," he says.

As a father, Patrick Buffalo says it's hard to watch his son struggle, but wants him to find his own way. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Mason's father, Patrick Buffalo, stands in his driveway, wet snow piling up on the brim of his cowboy hat as he watches his two sons corral a team of spirited horses.

"Watching him struggle is difficult," Patrick says. "I can't do it for him. He's got to do it himself."

Mason sees his father, a hypnotherapist and reiki master, as a role model.

Patrick, who describes himself as "an old kid from the rez," credits his son as part of the reason he began in the field of wellness decades ago.

"The reference point for most people is the past and their experiences. That's where they're stuck, is in their memories," Patrick says.

He notes the need many people have for a new reference points. "Rather than being stuck in the past, you're creating a picture of the future where there's hope."

Since Mason has been home, he has worked on that.

"It's not up to anybody else to bring healing to us," Patrick says. "It's up to us to claim that for ourselves. We've got to get past that victimhood, and the only way we can do it is by demonstrating it."

'Your spirit is lost'

4 years ago
Duration 1:02
Caretaker Mason Buffalo describes the burial process at Maskwacis

In addition to his official role at the cemetery, Mason has launched other projects. His first, Walking in Spirit, has grown since 2012 to draw hundreds of people each year from the four First Nations that make up Maskwacis.

Each summer, a day is set aside to walk the reserve's rural roads, carrying mementos and handmade signs, wearing shirts bearing the names of loved ones who died by suicide.

"What the elders say is when you commit suicide, you're going to be lingering around this area 'til it's your time to go," Mason says. "So it's like you're lost, right? Your spirit's lost until it's your time to go."

Since the walk began, Mason says the suicide rate has gone down — at least in Samson, home to about 6,000 Maskwacis residents.

Data as of Sept. 30, 2019

For family and friends left behind, there are still too many deaths. Mason says some weeks he and his crew handle three funerals, culturally significant events intended to ensure the smooth passage of their loved ones.

With that in mind, four years ago he and his father acquired their horse-drawn hearse — with its oversized-spoke wheels and large glass windows adorned with satiny pink-tassel curtain toppers and black-and-gold trim — to give deceased community members a "last ride."

Mason Buffalo and his younger brother Devin take the reins of the horse-drawn hearse used in Indigenous burial ceremonies. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

But that's not all the horses do.

Nestled in the snow-coated trees to the east of Patrick's barn is one of Mason's newer projects.

"He started making paths and clearing the bush, and in no time at all he had this framework all built," Patrick says.

In the past year and a half, the father-son team bought a cabin and set up a teepee back there. They call it Mostosomay Village, a place where people can confront trauma.

"You don't know there's something in those trees that is almost magical," Patrick says. "It's so peaceful. It's like being somewhere else." 

Horses play a large part in the healing process at Mostosomay Village. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

The horses play a part in the healing going on in the village.

"I don't claim to be a healer, but I'll say the horse spirit is the healer," Patrick says.

While he's proud of his son for stepping up in the community, he recognizes it's a heavy load to carry.

"Mason does have a strong vision for healing, although he struggles in his own ways continuously, because he's had his own experiences ever since he was a child," Patrick says. "And it's no different with the 16,000 people that live in this community. Everybody's been hurt. Everybody's stuck in a rut, not knowing how to get unstuck."

Mason Buffalo's father believes the horse spirit is a healer. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Mason sits on the porch step of the ranch house, scrolling an iPhone. He says he gets many messages, mostly through Facebook, from people going through hard times. 

"They reach out to me. I help them out," he says. "They don't trust other people.

"We have people that come from outside agencies and stuff that don't live here, that never went through living on the reserve. Yet they're the professionals."

Stacey Rain has been friends with Mason since high school. She says she often leans on him for support. While she was dealing with the loss of her mother earlier this year, her nephew went missing and was found dead.

Stacey Rain says Mason Buffalo is always there for her. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

"Nobody was listening. No one would help me. So I messaged him right away and I told him what was going on," she says. "He did everything he could. Talked to everybody he could.

"He's always there, like, for everybody. You have no idea how many people have him to rely on."

The most amazing thing about Mason, Stacey says, is his kindness.

"You have therapists and stuff, right? Like, they're paid to do that. But he takes time out on his own to do it all on his own."

Mason says he's constantly in a state of turmoil, but knows he's not the only one.

"My heart breaks into a million pieces," he says. "Each day, I'm picking up these pieces and getting my heart back together. And helping people helps me."