Using Tradition to Prevent Suicide

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“It’s been growing every year. I think we are not forcing anything but we always try to design this conference in really connecting to the needs of people and the needs of frontline workers,” said Normand D’Aragon, the organization’s co-founder.

The conference itself consisted of two parts: a three-day workshop series geared towards trainings for frontline workers November 29 to December 1 and an additional three days geared towards families, youth and anyone else who wished to attend.

The conference did not only serve as a means to reeducate the frontline workers with the latest tricks of the trade, according to D’Aragon, the event also provides a safe haven for councilors themselves to share their experiences and receive support. Since many of these workers can find themselves isolated in their communities, without a safe or practical spot to discuss job stress, many come to this event to find support among their peers.

Since the association started this event back in 2001, the nature of the conferences has evolved to cater to those to come to it. Though it started out as an event geared mainly towards frontline workers and adults looking for information on the subject, youth and family aspects have been added to the event.

“The youth started to come around because parents asked them to and it’s been like that for three or four years now. Every year the youth want to come down so we are also designing programming devoted to them which has to do with culture and listening to them and trying to get closer to their needs,” said D’Aragon.

Cultural activities and entertainment portions have also been added to the conference, this year’s event featured a play called The Dancer put on by the Natuashish from Labrador and a powwow was also put on one evening in celebration of the event.

The addition of the play in particular was a reason for D’Aragon to celebrate as it meant a certain completion for him.

“It’s amazing because as a cofounder one of my dreams was to make that connection and have Labrador, Nunavik and Nunatiuiq connecting with the Algonquins, Innus and Crees and it is happening,” he said.

Throughout the crowded hallways at the Delta Montreal, the youth presence could certainly be felt with lively teens everywhere among the parents, professionals and presenters.

Alan Gull, a youth protection worker, who was down with a large youth contingent from Oujé-Bougoumou, was really delighted to be on hand not just for what the conference could do for his own job but what it could do for the youth.

“We always need these kinds of programs in our community and we always want to go to these kinds of workshops for these types of programs. We can’t always find these kinds of opportunities in our community. So we love it when the youth come down and pick up as much information as they can to bring back to the youth in Oujé,” said Gull.

The information sharing between the youth at the conference and those at home was what was most essential to Gull as it is a tremendous strategy against suicide. According to Gull, suicide is a major concern for those in Oujé where many have happened.

Mistissini’s Gordon Petawabano was down for the conference as he has been every year since it began. As both a local pastor and a healer/ helper for the Cree Health Board, Petawabano said that he always walks away from the conference with a great deal to help with the two hats he wears back in Mistissini.

As Petawabano is frequently called in by the police when a suicide or suicide attempt occurs, he is all too familiar with the scenario.

“When I first came here it took a lot of time for me to put (the information) into practice but when I became involved in it I decided to attend more of these and I think the youth are doing it for the same reasons. If the youth come here they will eventually get used to (the subject matter) and then can become one of the people who are the frontline workers,” said Petawabano.

At the same time, Petawabano always enjoys coming back to the conferences because as time passes, more and more information becomes available on suicides within First Nations communities and specialized programs and treatments for them.

Sitting around in one corner was Chad Diabo, a suicide intervention course instructor, and Romeo Blackned and Miles Blackned, two Crees from Waskaganish who had just earned certificates from the course Diabo taught.

“They taught us how to talk to people when they are suicidal, it was great,” said Romeo Blackned, a volunteer, proudly holding his certificate.

Miles Blackned agreed, as a police officer in his community he said that suicide is something that he has to deal with on almost a weekly basis.

“It was really helpful, I feel more confident going back to my community,” he said, having learned more tools to take home to use as a police officer.

Kahnawake’s Diabo was standing along proudly with his two new graduates. Having worked as a frontline worker in Montreal for five years before becoming a course instructor, he recognized the necessity of the program and what it can do.

“People want to know what to say and what not to say in any kind of intervention. What this training does is give them a brand new model on how to approach a situation and some brand new tools to put in their tool belts. It’s about new ways to do an intervention,” said Diabo.

Diabo, who is also on the board of directors of the First Nations and Inuit Suicide Prevention Association of Quebec and Labrador (FNISPAQL), said that intervention work is changing drastically for the better.

“The old way of doing intervention social work or suicide work with people is to go about it indirectly. Like don’t mention anything actually about suicide because you are going to put the idea into their heads,” said Diabo.

Going from speaking about suicide inadvertently to overtly is the major style change, one which he said was far more effective.

“When you come out the first thing you say is ‘I see your invitation. I see you are in trouble and something is going on. Are you thinking about killing yourself?’ And we encourage people to say it in their own language, not just to say it in English or French,” said Diabo.

Diabo explained that addressing a First Nation’s suicide case in his/her own Indigenous language is not only more effective because it can often be more sincere and because the language is frequently devoid of more negative connotations and “outside” world influence.

“Sometimes with the different churches or different religious ideas out there, there’s a negative side to suicide, like the ‘you are going to burn in hell for eternity’ idea. Our language doesn’t touch on that. For us there’s just the simple fact that you are alive, you are important and we don’t want you to kill yourself,” said Diabo.

Dispelling the shame that comes part and parcel with suicide is another major challenge that Diabo said many intervention workers face when it comes to intervention work but to fight this he said that it is important to talk about it as much as possible. In his mind, the more it is discussed, the less taboo it will become, despite how this might not sit well with some community members, particularly the older generations.

“The fact is that our communities are always changing and if they really do want the numbers to go down and they don’t want to go to another funeral for another cousin, a niece or a nephew, they have to start bringing this out in the open,” said Diabo.

According to Diabo, funding is available for those who wish to take this course and the FNISPAQL can arrange to have an instructor sent to communities across Quebec and Ontario. For more info, go to

As director of social development for the community of Mistissini, Jane Blacksmith was at the conference, along with many of her employees, to look for new information to help in the programs she designs for her community.

“I went to a really interesting workshop on traditional parenting. Apparently the way they were showing us, if you work directly with the parents and their children at a really young age, in the long run you can take care of a lot of issues. The work behind that is all about reducing suicide and addiction problems later on in life,” said Blacksmith.

According to Blacksmith, bringing back traditional First Nations values to early childhood learning was strongly emphasized at this workshop as a means of better parenting. Many of the workshops going on at the conference were not entirely geared towards interventions but prevention. In that preventing suicides can start with ensuring that children have healthy and happy childhoods, many workshops devoted to parenting and healthy families went on throughout the conference.

“We are not immune to that problem (of suicide) or that situation but we are a community that does not sit back and watch that happen. We are providing empowerment workshops for our youth and we are also starting parenting workshops because when there is a suicide there is always a root to the problem,” said Blacksmith.

Throughout the hallways where the conference was taking place, the walls themselves were adorned with breathtaking works by Leah Marie Dorion, an interdisciplinary artist and consultant who also conducts art therapy workshops.

Dorion’s exhibit happened in conjunction with the conference as her work was all about healing through art in a First Nation’s context and the empowerment of women.

“I was invited by the conference organizers to share some of the work that I do, healing through art, because I used art to personally heal and also I have worked with the women and the youth of my First Nations and Métis community,” said Dorion.

Years earlier Dorion escaped a brutally abusive relationship and found herself living back with her mother on their First Nations and Métis reserve in Saskatchewan. Finding herself awake in the night, Dorion discovered not only her love for painting but that it actually helped her throughout her journey back to balance and mental health. Her workshops were not only about art therapy but her own journey.

“We often use our Elders’ teachings and we have very powerful teachings and women’s teachings and men’s teachings and then we always encourage our young people to visually represent what they learned and then we use circles and storytelling and deep sharing to take it further,” said Dorion.

Keeping the art therapy culturally relative is something Dorion said was essential to what she does, particularly as there is such a reverence for art in her own community.

“What I find is that many of the younger people don’t know who they are, they don’t have any of the traditional teachings and so we use art creation as a vessel to give them back some of their culture,” she stated.

More on Dorion and her spectacular works can be found at

Dorion was not the only presenter pushing the idea of changing lives through art as Stacy from Iqualuit, Nunavut was on hand to present for Isaksimagit Inuusirmi Katujjiqatigiit or The Embrace Life Council. The whole premise behind the Embrace Life Council is to take a team from one Inuit community to the next to embark on photography and video projects with the youth as a means of suicide prevention through their Inuusivut project.

“The Inuusivut project basically sprung out of not wanting to take that suicide prevention pathway anymore. They wanted instead to have a more positive approach and have it not necessarily be about suicide prevention but more about living life and how to have fun living life and doing it that way you in effect you are a preventing suicide organization,” said Stacy.

The Innusivut project began last January and since then it has gone to several Inuit communities to teach the youth a new way of self-expression and communication. The project is funded through the federal government and various other agencies. For more info, email

In blending traditional western medicine with traditional First Nations healings, FNISPAQL has and will continue to bring cutting-edge techniques within a First Nations context to the forefront. As no two individuals can truly embark on the same journey nor find identical paths towards healing, the more treatment options available to them, the better it is for everyone.

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