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"Take the time to listen, take the time to respect each other"
- FSIN Vice Chief Albert Scott
Current statistics on Aboriginal suicide are grim. According to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Special Report: Choosing Life, Aboriginal suicide rates are two to three times higher than the Canadian average. Youth rates are even worse. The report states that suicide rates are five to six times higher among Aboriginal youth than their mainstream counterparts.
"Most concerning of all," state the Commissioners, "We identified a strong possibility that the number of suicides among Aboriginal youth will rise in the next 10 to 15 years." This is largely due to the expected bulge in Aboriginal youth populations. In the next few years, the large number of young people who are now younger than 15 will be entering young adulthood, a highly traumatic time for even the best prepared youths.
The report also refers to the impact of the "ripple effect" through interconnected families and communities. The aftermath of a suicide may include destructive behaviour or copycat suicides. This is something for which community leaders are often not prepared.
Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) Chief Blaine Favel agrees. "We encountered some suicides when I was Chief of Poundmaker, and the sense of powerlessness and the sense of failure that a community has, and the leadership has, is something we should talk about," he said.
Talking about the issue was the purpose of "The Washing of Tears Conference" held in Saskatoon. The conference was organized by the Health and Social Development Commission of the FSIN to address suicide and its impact. "It's an issue that none of us have not been touched by in the 72 First Nations of Saskatchewan," said Chief Favel.
The goal of the conference was to develop strategies for communities to anticipate and prevent suicide and learn to deal with the aftermath when a suicide does occur.
More than 1,000 people attended the conference, with approximately 200 coming from out of province. Most of them recognized that the answers are not simply in improving crisis services. Many of the answers lie in addressing the underlying factors. "High unemployment, poverty, the effects of residential schools, a lot of them are tied together," said Chief Favel.
These issues, and more, were addressed throughout the conference in workshops.
The findings expressed in the delegates final reports reflected those of the Royal Commission, in part: prevention through community action.
A variety of ways are suggested for communities to become more involved.
Cultural activities such as sweats, storytelling and language camps were frequently suggested.
The overwhelming recommendations, however, were for youth programs and youth involvement. As one participant stated, "Youth need a say in how their communities are run." The delegates listed positive role models and sport and recreation opportunities as being important. Courses in parenting skills, life skills, anger management and goal setting were also suggested.
The conference delegates took home the workshop findings and will begin the process of implementing them in their own communities.
The "Washing of Tears Conference" was the first step in addressing this issue that has gone on for too long. The next step will require the support of entire communities if change is to occur. As FSIN Vice-Chief Albert Scott stated, "Nothing is impossible if we work together."