Saskatchewan·First Person

A lesson on hope: Tristen Durocher reflects one year after his 635 km walk and 44-day fast

An open letter to the young activists of today.

'My open letter to the young activists of today'

Tristen Durocher speaks at a news conference in Regina on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. Durocher lived in Wascana Park for 44 days while fasting to convince the provincial government to adopt a suicide prevention bill it had recently voted down. That bill has since been adopted. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

This First Person piece is by Tristen Durocher.

A year ago, Durocher began a journey to raise awareness about the incredibly high number of young Indigenous people who were dying because of suicide. Durocher walked 635 kilometres from his home in Air Ronge, Sask., to the legislative grounds in Regina. 

He set up a teepee and started a 44-day ceremonial fast, with the goal of convincing the provincial government to adopt a suicide prevention bill it had recently voted down.

That bill has since been adopted by the provincial government. 

A year later, in the wake of recent revelations about hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites across Canada, we asked Durocher what was on his mind. 

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My open letter to the young activists of today. 

Our children are imitation artists, so be careful what you teach. They're a very observant audience. Activism is a type of performance, an effort to teach the public, yes, but also a type of theatre, art. 

My childhood hobbies — which became my eventual art — were photography and music, so I'm always concerned with the way things look and the way things sound. 

I've found there is enough disturbing spectacle in the world, so I don't wish to contribute to it. Hope and love are my muses — what I look for and what I aim to show. I want my students to learn to be comfortable and at home being heard and seen. Learning to play an instrument shows young people how to have confidence sharing their voices and music with others. 

I grew up at The John Arcand Fiddle Fest in Saskatoon, where my friends and I shared our favourite fiddle tunes with each other and learned the joy of jamming with others, celebrating sharing friendships. My fiddle family taught me that I exist, I belong, and my absence would be noticed. 

Tristen Durocher lived in a teepee near the Saskatchewan Legislature Building for 44 days. (Submitted by Tristen Durocher)

Getting over a fear of mistakes

I'm a fiddle instructor in Northern Manitoba, where I teach 380 students in four rural and remote communities. As a teacher I've been a constant student. 

I discovered that our young girls begin the lesson with more fear and trepidation than the boys, holding more self criticism and distrust of the body in the form of hesitation and fear of making a mistake. The boys I teach often have no problem holding the violin bow in their right hands. The girls overthink, doubt, some even have a white-knuckled grip when, in the words of one violinist, Kim Forest from Saskatoon, you should "hold it gently, like you're holding an egg." 

The teepee where Tristen Durocher lived during his 44-day fast. (Submitted by Tristen Durocher)

I found a simple solution to help my absolute beginners get over their fear of mistakes. Basically my method is to be a musical clown. I play all the demonstrations of the worst possible sounds a fiddle can make. My students laugh at the horrible sounds. "Here is what not to do" is how the lesson begins. 

After the demonstrations of "mistakes," after everybody heard the graceless screams of a dying cat, we can begin. My students begin their musical life having no fear of making a wrong move, because I helped them find the humour in awful sounds. 

"Relax your hands, you're not trying to punch a hole in the wall." 

After patience, manageable increments and repetition, our music begins to take a shape that better approximates joy and grace. 

The choice is ours

Woodlands and pristine lakes, cabins on the land — these were the classrooms where my cousins and I ran wild and learned about the world. Because my fiddle was small and light enough to take on the boat, I was able to take it into the bush and fiddle away summer afternoons. I would play for the water, for the trees, for my grandmother as she cooked supper on the fire. 

Around the age of 10, I began to fiddle at funerals. As well as being joy, celebration, connection, breathing and healing, music can be a form of grieving. 

When I saw the images of churches across Canada burning, red-painted bloody doors, headless statues, my music voiced no celebration. Arson and vandalism teach the ugliness of violence, intolerance and anger, and invoke reactionary fear in the audience. I try to keep my pedagogy grounded in hope. 

Tristen Durocher stands in front of the Saskatchewan Legislature Building in Regina. (Submitted by Tristen Durocher)

My students don't know what I did last summer because I'm there to give them music, not heartbreaking stories of lethal indifference and survival via endurance. I also don't want to introduce the idea to young girls with potential body dysmorphia that I survived for 44 days without eating anything.

I announced the plans for the Walking With Our Angels Ceremony to my trusted elders before I took my first step, knowing it would hold me accountable and help motivate me through any moments of doubt. And there were many moments of doubt. The mantra that delivered me to my destination was surrender and trust in your experience

As humans we watch, but we are also watched. Remember your audience. Perhaps they've seen enough horror and devastation. 

I show my children the magic of taking a hollowed out piece of wood into the hands and making it sing because the instrument brought me closer to love and devotion, my ancestors, my community and my youth more than any church could. My fiddle is my holy house of prayer. I cringe to see other people's holy houses burn. 

The Charter Of Rights and Freedoms has a clear outline for 1) Freedom of Expression and 2) Freedom of Religion. Those laws kept me safe through my 44-day ceremony. If I want these laws respected for me, I need to respect them for others. 

Tristen Durocher's fiddle. Durocher teaches fiddle to children in northern Manitoba. (Submitted by Tristen Durocher)

One day I'll give my beloved fiddle away, place it into new hands that will carry it forward into a time which doesn't belong to me. Therefore the fiddle I own is not mine to keep. I just hold it briefly. I'm a temporary custodian of the 92-year-old German Fiddle I play, carrying it gently so it's condition is intact for the next heart full of music. My hope is that open palms receive the gift, not white-knuckled closed fists. 

As a country we will do the same with all that we hold most sacred: pass it on to the next generation. Call it a church. Call it a state. Call it a reserve. Call it a fiddle. Will the gift be received with love, fear, despair, hope? In our shared moment, the choice is ours to hold. 


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tristen Durocher walked 635 kilometres from his home in Air Ronge, Sask., to the legislative grounds in Regina in the summer of 2020. He set up a teepee and started a 44-day ceremonial fast, with the goal of convincing the provincial government to adopt a suicide prevention bill it had recently voted down. That bill has since been adopted by the provincial government. 

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