First Indigenous Miss Teenage Ontario aims to shed light on youth suicide
18-year-old Aleria McKay speaks about her personal experiences
The first-ever Indigenous contestant to win a Miss Teenage Ontario title is using her pageant platform to battle Indigenous youth suicide.
Aleria McKay, who lives with her mom, two cats and a three legged-dog at Six Nations of the Grand River near Brantford, Ont., says she loves being on stage, but wants to send a message, too.
"Pageants were a way where I could get up on stage, wear nice dresses and feel like a princess, but I could also advocate for things I was passionate about," she said.
"It's a good balance of those things and that's why I really enjoy it."
She began dancing at age five, competing in pageants by 11 and this January won her first provincial title as Miss Teenage Ontario 2018.
Her journey to the title wasn't an easy one.
In April 2017, McKay was battling with her own demons and attempted suicide.
With support from her family, she's using the memory of her personal crisis to help raise awareness about high rates of suicide among Indigenous youth and the need for improved mental health services.
"It's something that I've experienced and seen in the people around me, my community and other communities. It's something that's been ignored for a really long time," says McKay.
Suicide rates are five to seven times higher for First Nations youth than for non-Indigenous youth, according to Health Canada. Suicide rates for Inuit youth are 11 times the national average.
Over the last year, McKay wrote a play titled And She Split the Sky in Two, which tells the story of a First Nations girl dealing with the news of her sister's suicide.
The majority of the production team was non-Indigenous so McKay made sure that everyone understood the message of the play and the significance to Indigenous communities.
She also served on a National Suicide Prevention Plan panel with NDP MP Charlie Angus to offer a youth perspective. This summer she'll be traveling to Temagami First Nation near North Bay, Ont., to speak with youth.
A real learning curve
McKay's mother Melissa Turner is a guidance counsellor who supported McKay through her struggles with mental health.
"It's been a real learning curve for us because she's been dealing with mental health issues," she said.
As a counsellor, Turner thought she would know how to respond, but helping her own child proved more difficult.
"I was like any other parent who said stupid things," said Turner.
"I talked a lot because I didn't understand."
For other parents who might be struggling with helping their children, both McKay and Turner say listening is the most important step.
"Try and understand you can't put your thoughts or your feelings into your child; you can't will them to be better," said Turner.
"Listen to each other. Listen to what everybody has to say and have an open mind because I think that's really how change begins," said McKay.
Turner supports her daughter's advocacy and says it's much-needed work.
"I hope that through her own story of survival and dealing with mental health she can help other people," said Turner.
McKay will hold the title of Miss Teenage Ontario until January 2019. In the fall, she will be attending York University in Toronto to study drama and work toward a degree in education.