Indigenous people need better access to the right supports to prevent suicide, community members say

First Nations, Inuit and Métis people living in Manitoba need better access to culturally relevant and appropriate resources to overcome inter-generational trauma and prevent suicide, say service providers and those who seek help.

Cultural teachings touted as way to help people past intergenerational trauma

Thunderbird House is a gathering space and cultural hub located in Winnipeg's inner city. (Dana Hatherly/CBC)

Mary Black and her best friend both endured childhoods rife with pain and suffering while growing up on Hollow Water First Nation.

Her friend killed himself nearly five years ago. Black felt she was heading down the same path before a combination of therapy, counselling and cultural ceremonies helped her steer away from the addictions, gangs and violence that, combined with everyday discrimination, still weigh her down.

"It's very hard. It makes me feel like my life is not valuable," she said.

Black, 27, attributes her lifelong trauma to a lack of meaningful connection to her First Nation's culture and identity.

She and other community members say First Nations, Inuit and Métis people living in Manitoba need better access to culturally relevant and appropriate resources to overcome inter-generational trauma and prevent suicide.

The death of Kelly Fraser, 26, a beloved Inuk singer-songwriter from Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, has sparked calls for a renewed focus on the issue of improving support services.

Fraser died by suicide on Christmas Eve in Winnipeg, where she had been living.

"Kelly suffered from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] for many years as a result of childhood traumas, racism and persistent cyberbullying," said a written statement from Fraser's mother and six siblings.

"She was actively seeking help and spoke openly about her personal challenges online and through her journey."

'Kelly was an incredibly kind person who gave so much of herself to help others,' Kelly Fraser's family said after the Inuk singer-songwriter's death. (Kitra Cahana photo/Submitted by Hitmakerz)

While some First Nations have developed culturally relevant healing spaces and services, many Indigenous people experience barriers to accessing traditional resources, both in Winnipeg and on reserves.

Sagkeeng First Nation has created Turtle Lodge to help community members connect with their traditions and create a better environment for those who are working through trauma.

The sacred space of the Anishinabe people on the southern tip of Lake Winnipeg is meant to counter the lingering effects of residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and the displacement of First Nations from their lands.

Dave Courchene, of Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba, founded Turtle Lodge in the early 2000s. (Alyssa Mosher/CBC)

The legacy of those colonial institutions has prevented First Nations, Inuit and Métis people from exercising their traditional ways and that is the root of the mental health issues faced by Indigenous youth, said elder Dave Courchene, the founder of Turtle Lodge.

Elders teach young people about land stewardship and being life-givers and encourage them to go on a vision quest, to help them understand their purpose and meaning in life.

"That is what defines our identity, our spiritual identity, as human beings," Courchene said.

Young Indigenous people often find themselves in situations or environments where they're looked down on, Courchene said.

"If you continue to live within that environment, you're going to believe that you're not as good as anybody else."

The Turtle Lodge teachings will help them build confidence and give them something to be proud of, he said.

"The way that we have to move forward is to support all young people to find their own identity."

Turtle Lodge offers healing programs and supports for Indigenous youth and adults. (Submitted by Turtle Lodge)

Mapping meaning

Tradition-based supports can be difficult to find in downtown Winnipeg, but there are people trying to provide culturally relevant programs and services.

One of the challenges is that programs and services vary from community to community and they will vary in different settings, said Carla Cochrane, a regional research co-ordinator for the First Nations Health and Social Secretariat of Manitoba.

"One of the things that I often hear is that people have no connection to this place or that place, or they may not have a way to access to it," Cochrane said.

Thunderbird House at the corner of Main Street and Higgins Avenue offers Indigenous teachings and healing ceremonies, but programs and treatment can vary for different people, Cochrane said.

They can range from traditional sweat lodges and smudging to listening to music, going for walks or spending time with family, she said.

Cochrane hopes the 2020 World Indigenous Suicide Prevention Conference in Winnipeg from Aug. 25-27 will help efforts to insert Indigenous tradition, teachings and culture into mental health and addictions treatment.

Wake-up call

For Black, who was addicted and abused before she was a teen, it took the loss of her friend in March 2015 for her to make changes in her life.

"That was the moment that dictated who I became," she said.

Reconnecting with her culture has helped her stay sober and build resilience.

Black now has a rewarding life that includes three children, a partner and his daughter.

She's outspoken about her suffering.

"I think about that little girl [I was] and I know she is safe now."

Watch Mary Black recite her poem Quiet:

Mary Black said silence has plagued her community and the nation for sometime, but the popularity of her video which puts a voice to the issues around missing and murdered women, residential schools, sexual abuse and suicide show people can't be silent any longer. 3:48

Where to get help

If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them about it, the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention says.

With files from Avi Jacob and Bryce Hoye