Manitoba

'A battle no one knows about': Jordin Tootoo talks mental health at Red River College

Canada's first Inuk NHL player, Jordin Tootoo, delved into his own mental health and addictions issues at a Red River College forum, during a stop in Winnipeg on his cross-Canada speaking tour Wednesday.

Tootoo, whose brother Terence died by suicide, spoke candidly about his addiction and mental health problems

Jordin Tootoo gave an impassioned speech Wednesday at Red River College, encouraging people to seek help for mental health problems. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Canada's first Inuk NHL player, Jordin Tootoo, delved into his mental health and addictions issues at a Red River College forum, during a stop in Winnipeg on his cross-Canada speaking tour Wednesday.

Tootoo, who grew up in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, retired from the NHL in 2018, and has spent his retirement speaking out about mental health awareness and suicide prevention.

"We all know that suicide is a national epidemic, and it's more prevalent across our communities in the far north," Tootoo said at the forum. 

"Every Indigenous person I've met has been touched or affected by suicide....We all fight a battle no one knows about."

Tootoo is fighting that battle himself.

He struggled with addictions and other mental health problems after the loss of his older brother, Terence, who died by suicide after being charged with impaired driving in 2002, at age 22.

A suicide note read: ''Do well, Jor. Go all the way. Take care of the family. You're the man, Ter.''  

Tootoo says going all the way means being part of a solution. He's nine years sober, has a wife and two daughters and is a mental health advocate.

Watch Jordin Tootoo talk about his work in suicide prevention:

Former hockey player Jordin Tootoo is on a Canada-wide speaking tour delving deeply into his own struggle about mental health. He also touches on the death of Inuit singer Kelly Fraser, who died by suicide this past Christmas. 1:14

"I think it really opens up those communication lines for not only students but, you know, our communities in the far north to say, 'Hey, you know, if Jordan can open up on a public level, so can we,'" he said.

Tootoo hopes men will learn from his example and speak openly about their struggles.

"No one talks about it, especially us men, who are supposed to be defenders and leaders," Tootoo said.

"It's time to change....The old ways have never worked."

'Hits close to home'

One man was particularly struck by Tootoo's words.

"It hit me kind of hard because his story and my story are very similar. I suffered with addiction and abused alcohol during a rough time in life," said Kale Brereton, a Red River College student.

"His book was one of the things that helped me really turn a corner."

Kale Brereton got his copy of "All The Way: My Life on the Ice" signed by the author, Jordin Tootoo. (Rachel Bergen/CBC)

Brereton says he's learned over the years to be more open about his feelings.

"Men need to learn to learn to talk and be able to speak about their emotions. And I think a lot of the times we drowned our sorrows, we forget that we have tear ducts for a reason, and hearts that can break. And I think it's time men turn a corner and kind of embrace that they're human."

Jordin Tootoo signed Kale Brereton's book after Tootoo's speech at a Red River College mental health forum. (Rachel Bergen/CBC)

Inuit student Stephanie Nirlungayuk said Tootoo's words "hits close to home," because she's also from Nunavut.

"I feel like I've known him my whole life. A lot of people in Nunavut can relate to that situation. It's a really good experience to actually hear him speak first-hand on his experience with mental health and living in Nunavut," she said. 

Stephanie Nirlungayuk is a student at Red River College and went to hear Jordin Tootoo speak on Wednesday. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Another Red River student found Tootoo's words impactful. Faith Whiteway, who's in the Ojibway language program, said she's happy to hear from a person with addiction issues who is sober and working hard every day.

For her, being part of the Ojibway program has been healing, as she approaches one year of sobriety.

"Learning your language plays a huge part in healing and recovering," Whiteway said.

"Just seeing him up there in front of a lot of students, that's something that we should be seeing a lot today." 

Watch Jordin Tootoo talk about the importance of inclusion in hockey:

The first Inuit player in the NHL, Jordin Tootoo explains why inclusion is so important in all facets of life. 1:03