Advocate calls for legislation to address Saskatchewan’s high Indigenous suicide rate

Tristen Durocher is walking more than 600 km to call for help.

“This is a death march of the departed, grieving spirits who want us, the living, to show them we’re doing everything we can to make sure no more children are joining them,” he said, standing on the side of Highway 11.

He left La Ronge, in northern Saskatchewan, for Regina on July 2. When he arrives he will begin a hunger strike.

He told Global News he will remain on the lawn of the legislature until the MLAs are recalled and pass meaningful legislation to address the suicide crisis in the province.

Read more: Auditor calls for improvement in northern Saskatchewan suicide prevention

“I’m walking… to raise awareness that we have criminally negligent, inept politicians that are letting us die,” he said.

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“And we’ve had enough of that. That’s covert genocide.”

He was first affected by suicide when he was eight years old. A friend of his cousin, who was in high school, took her own life.

He also plays the fiddle and has been asked to perform at funerals all over Saskatchewan.

He said he’s been to too many — and his experience is hardly unique.

Read more: Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation declares state of crisis after 3 recent suicides

Last November, the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation declared a state of emergency after three children, the youngest of whom was 10 years old, committed suicide in three weeks.

There are similar stories from Ochapowace Nation, where three people also died by suicide within a month last year, or the other bands or towns in Saskatchewan’s north.

The suicide rates of Indigenous people across the country are significantly higher than non-Indigenous populations, according to Statistics Canada.

From 2011 and 2016, the suicide rate among First Nations people was three times higher than among the non-Indigenous population.

Among Métis it was nearly twice as high and it was nine times as high among the Inuit population.

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In northwestern Saskatchewan, the suicide rate for the area is nearly three times higher than the Canadian national average — 29.7 people per every 100,000 compared to 11, according to a 2019 report from the provincial auditor.

In May, the Saskatchewan government unveiled the Pillars for Life strategy, which included $1.2 million to expand mental health first aid and training.

Read more: Saskatchewan government introduces ‘Pillars for Life’ suicide prevention plan

Durocher called the plan inadequate because it didn’t address all the factors that contribute to youth suicide, like drugs, gangs and an unjust legal system.

“If it doesn’t include all of these external factors that contribute to a child arriving at a place of hopelessness it’s not good enough,” he said.

His frustration is not just directed at MLAs.

Standing on the side of the highway, barely a third of the way into his walk, he blasted the leadership of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and the Assembly of First Nations, along with several local chiefs and bands.

“They don’t get to take credit for this movement, they don’t get to make this their political advertising… I’m sick of their photo ops and lack of action.”

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His support instead comes from people who want to help.

He’s received donations of food and water from other people affected. Some join in the walk for a day or two, like Veronique McCallum.

“I’m walking for my daughter and all other people we’ve lost for suicide. I’m honouring their memory and I’m walking for our future generations,” she said.

As she walks, she and another woman carry a banner with the names of a dozen people who have died by suicide from Pelican Narrows, where McCallum is originally from.

“We’re having a suicide crisis right now with Indigenous people and there’s not much being done.”

Read more: ‘We’re hurting’: Saskatchewan First Nation calls for long-term solution to youth suicide crisis

The group swells and shrinks with different people joining, but his constant companion is Christopher Merasty.

Merasty often walks at the head of the group with a white flag bearing the words “Men of the North.”

He describes the Men of the North as a group where “men can talk about things men don’t talk about”— like suicidal thoughts, domestic violence, abuse and residential schools.

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“We’ve got 14-, 15-year-olds attending the meetings, and they’re listening. And we’re listening to them,” he told Global News.

He said he is there to protect Durocher and help him stay focused on his purpose.

Read more: ‘I’m scared, I can’t sleep’: northern Saskatchewan communities call for help

In an email, a government spokesperson said they would continue to engage with Indigenous people to address the high rates of suicide.

The email also stated Rural and Remote Health Minister Warren Kaeding reached out and offered to meet with Durocher and Merasty.

Durocher said an assistant had emailed him and asked for a meeting, which he declined.

He told Global News he declined because he can’t speak for the north, though he’d be willing to take part in a meeting that involves frontline workers.

He said he’ll begin his hunger strike as soon as he gets to the Legislative Building in Regina.

He added he’s prepared to stay as long as it takes.

“My harm could be ended the moment they’re ready to pass a piece of legislation I’m convinced could save lives,” he said.

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“Them not doing it but having the capacity to means my harm, my starvation is on their hands.”

— With files from Ryan Kessler, Maham Abedi and the Canadian Press.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.