'Stronger than I am’: The wedge issue that shouldn't have been

Métis suicide prevention advocate Tristen Durocher’s 44-day protest fast in Regina came to an end in a flurry of sound, ceremony and emotion.

From the steps of the Saskatchewan legislature, the sound of bagpipes filled the air. And Indigenous tears fell. 

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As the sun began to set, the 24-year-old musician played Red River Valley on his fiddle and had a few words for youths suffering in the province.

 “[Here’s] the message I want our young people to know: Whatever courage it took to walk this far, they’ve got that inside of themselves and then some,” Durocher told Canada’s National Observer in Regina the day before breaking his fast on Sept. 13.

Durocher and a group of supporters walked more than 600 kilometres from the Anglican cemetery on the Lac La Ronge Indian Band’s Fairchild reserve in northern Saskatchewan to the provincial legislature in Regina. 

And since he had things he wanted to accomplish, he set up a tipi near the government building and surrounded it with memorial photos from the families of northerners who took their own lives.

“I met a young man from northern Saskatchewan who lost three very close friends in high school to suicide, and earlier this summer he told me, ‘I think it’s amazing how far you’ve walked and that you fasted this long. You’re so strong.’ I looked at him and said, ‘You’re stronger,’” Durocher said. 

He stayed in Regina and did not eat for 44 days. He fasted on the lawn of the Saskatchewan legislature, in front of the place where Saskatchewan Party MLAs unanimously voted down a bill put forward by Cumberland NDP MLA Doyle Vermette that would have legislated a suicide prevention strategy.

 

The problem

Vermette said he proposed the bill for the people of his constituency, who have seen disproportionately high rates of suicide in their communities, and to address suicide rates in the province.  

“We’ve had so many suicides, so many young people, so many attempts. We introduced a bill two years back, and then we reintroduced it as Bill 618 recently, in 2019, after the original died on the order paper,” Vermette told Canada’s National Observer in May.

Jack Hicks, an adjunct professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan, was highly critical of the province’s move to reject the bill in a July interview with Canada’s National Observer.

Saskatchewan had the highest suicide rate among the provinces as of 2018, which Hicks said is the most recent nationally comparable data.

“The government of the province with the highest rate of suicide in the country becomes the first province in Canadian history to vote down a totally polite, sane motion calling for serious action on suicide prevention. That’s something,” Hicks said. 

Hicks also noted that while death by suicide disproportionately impacts northern and Indigenous communities, it was a spike in non-Indigenous cases that pushed Saskatchewan’s rates above those of Manitoba in 2018.

The government put forward a suicide prevention plan in May it says it considers adequate and has reiterated that in statements to Canada’s National Observer over the summer. Called Pillars for Life, the plan co-ordinates activities to promote life and reduce risk factors related to death by suicide.

The Saskatchewan government says it is also investing $1.2 million for prevention in 2020-21. In the same budget, the Ministry of Health is putting a record $435 million to mental health and addictions services and supports across Saskatchewan — a $33-million increase over last year’s budget.

“The tragic loss of a person by suicide is felt not only by family and friends, but by the entire community. We want to assure the public that suicide prevention is a priority for the government of Saskatchewan,” spokesperson Matthew Glover told Canada’s National Observer in July as Durocher and his supporters walked past Saskatoon towards Regina. 

 

Parks and recreation

When Durocher arrived in Regina, ministers Warren Kaeding and Lori Carr met briefly with him. 

The two were seen entering Durocher’s tipi and later confirmed the meeting in a press statement. Carr and Kaeding thanked Durocher for his advocacy for suicide prevention. But the government’s welcome didn’t last long. 

The Provincial Capital Commission then filed an application to the Court of Queen’s Bench to have Durocher’s tipi removed from the legislature’s lawn citing bylaw violations such as rules against overnight camping and fires. 

The government also sought to have Durocher and his companions found in contempt of a previous Court of Queen’s Bench ruling that removed the Justice for our Stolen Children Camp from the same place in 2018, where a beer garden was slated for Canada Day.

 

Indigenous leadership

These legal moves prompted Indigenous chiefs to visit Wascana Park to support Durocher.

Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson lost her sister to suicide. 

“I want to thank you for giving voice to those who don’t have a voice. Giving hope to those who don’t feel they have hope, and I hope that we do something more concrete and pass legislation to do something for suicide,” Cook-Searson said.  

 “You need to provide hope, and Tristen, that’s what you’re doing; you’re providing hope. And it’s up to us now as the Assembly of First Nations and FSIN and tribal council and treaty areas to put pressure on the decision-making peoples in this house here,” Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said, pointing his finger at the legislature.   

“And [also] in that house in Ottawa, so legislation [is put] in place to adequately deal with this crisis, to provide hope.” 

The FSIN [Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations] said it is working on its own bill to present to the government. “What we’re going to do is work with folks like Tristen and many, many others who are affected and hand them a bill based on our recommendations, our protocols, our traditions and language and culture,” Chief Bobby Cameron said. 

 

The legal wrangle

Durocher’s day in court came last Friday after being adjourned as requested by Durocher’s lawyer Eleanore Sunchild. Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Graeme Mitchell ruled the bylaws unconstitutional and gave the park authority six months to come up with new ones. (The government has not said if it plans to appeal.)

After the ruling, Mitchell made a surprise appearance at the closing ceremony Sunday and was gifted a Métis sash.  

Durocher called the court win a “silver lining” and said he remains committed to pushing for a legislated solution to suicide prevention in Saskatchewan. 

“Without sounding overly pessimistic or ungrateful, I did not walk 635 kilometres and quit eating for 44 days to change some Wascana Park bylaws. That wasn’t the hill I was ready to die on,” Durocher told Canada’s National Observer. 

But he said the ruling did make some difference by potentially setting precedent for future use of the space for Indigenous ceremonies and protests. 

 

Symbolic justice 

Two men from the 2018 Justice For Our Stolen Children Camp were at Sunday’s closing ceremony.   

Prescott Demas hadn’t stepped foot inside a tipi at Wascana Park since a 2018 court order banned him from being on the site where he’d lived for 197 days. “This is very significant. The space here means a lot to me,” Demas said.   

“The tipi is powerful and this is a sacred place. Indigenous people come here because we are drawn to it. It’s part of our identity. We come here and we feel a sense of power just being in that tipi. It’s an awesome feeling.”

Tory Phenix, who was also part of the 2018 camp, said putting up tipis at Wascana Park is a pastime of his. 

“I had heard about a man who had walked from Lac La Ronge, a person I didn’t know, and that they were setting up a tipi in the park, and I got all excited,” Phenix said. 

“So I came down to the park and everybody was just looking at the tipi poles. So I said, ‘Don’t mind if I do.’ I’m the tipi guy, it’s my thing.” 

He said park authority bylaws have never stopped him from doing just that. 

“I do it anyway regardless of whether there are rules about it or not … at Camp Justice For Our Stolen Children, we did our own thing and got into some legal trouble …”   

While also political, and now legal, Durocher said his journey has been a traditional and spiritual one from the beginning, and he ended it the same way, with a pipe ceremony. 

After the ceremony, Durocher walked to the legislature, cut off his braided hair and tied it to the front door in the shape of a noose before burning it in a ceremonial fire and taking down the tipi later that day.  

He said the noose symbolized the “disgusting criminally negligent indifference” of the government when it comes to suicide prevention. 

“The burning of it symbolized that we are done allowing our state halls of power to have heartlessness, contempt and ‘let it burn’ policies when it comes to the lethal realities taking place on Indigenous communities across the province.”

 

The matriarchs

Durocher said he was tired on his final day of fasting last Saturday, and his feelings about leaving were mixed.

“The last day is very bittersweet because there’s a beautiful community of matriarchs within the city of Regina who I will be sad to say goodbye to as they have been coming each morning to smudge and pray. But I do miss home. I want to go and I don’t want to say goodbye … at the same time. A fast can’t continue forever,” Durocher said. 

Three matriarchs spoke with Canada’s National Observer after a morning ceremony at the tipi where Durocher broke his fast over a bowl of buffalo soup. 

“We wanted to make sure that these last four days of ceremony were protected by the matriarchs. He allowed us to have a voice. We’ve reclaimed this space as sacred space, and we don’t need a government to tell us that,” said Joely BigEagle-Kequahtooway from White Bear First Nations.  

“This space has created an energy and a spirit that ignites everyone to move. This isn’t the end,” said Denise Pasapa from White Bear First Nations. 

“With [Durocher’s] presence here, you cannot unsee what he brought,” Brenda Dubois of the Muscowpetung Saulteaux Nation said. “You cannot unhear what he brought, and you cannot unfeel what he brought with him. It was loud and clear.”

 

Healing the north

As Durocher prepared for his journey back north, so did the tipi. 

It is now with Men of the North, a support and empowerment group for northern men founded by Christopher Merasty, who walked to Regina with Durocher and their mutual friend Myles Cook. 

“It’s going to be our legacy,” Merasty told Canada’s National Observer once back in La Ronge. 

Merasty said he brought the tipi to La Ronge to be a healing place to help northerners deal with difficult issues, such as missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, intimate partner violence, homophobia and racism. 

Merasty said he would also like to take the tipi to more remote communities to share stories and promote healing, and “just to show them that they’re not forgotten.” 

Merasty said working with youth during a suicide crisis in the northern village of La Loche had a profound impact on him. 

“We were going through a suicide crisis. We had probably about five to six babies there ending their lives within a week. It was happening on a weekly basis and it was scary,” Merasty said. 

“Grandmothers and parents were literally handcuffing themselves to their babies so that they would not hurt themselves.” 

But he said when the community declared a state of emergency, residents were left to fend for themselves.  

“There was nothing. There was no help, support or resources. There was just ‘good luck,’” Merasty said.  

Later, while living in La Ronge, he faced another suicide crisis. In 2016, girls between the ages of 10 and 14 from multiple northern communities took their own lives in the space of a month.

Merasty’s daughter attempted suicide twice more recently, while he was away working at Cigar Lake Mine, 600 kilometres north of La Ronge.  

But Merasty doesn’t see the end of Durocher’s Wascana Park demonstration or the court case results in terms of victory or failure. Rather, Merasty called it “a step in the right direction for truth and reconciliation.”

 

The wedge issue that shouldn't have been

The government and NDP Leader Ryan Meili both released statements to the press on Sept. 10, Suicide Prevention Day. 

Rural and Remote Health Minister Warren Kaeding reiterated the government’s earlier statements. 

“We want to assure the public that suicide prevention is a priority for the government of Saskatchewan,” Kaeding said.

 “There are glaring holes in mental health and addictions treatment in our province and it’s costing Saskatchewan people their lives. We need to do better,” Meili said.  

“The first step to solving an issue is to admit that you have a problem — and we have a problem with suicide in Saskatchewan.”

Durocher said the government’s statements aren’t enough. “For us, every day is Suicide Prevention Day.” He didn’t want suicide prevention to become a wedge issue, but said the public should elect a government that will take action. 

 “I know [the government has] the excuse that [the legislature is] adjourned and there is an upcoming election, but they’ve had so many years, so much time and opportunity to draft something,” Durocher told Canada’s National Observer on Saturday. 

“We’ll take our little victories where we can, but there is still the problem of no meaningful legislation set in place for suicide prevention in the province of Saskatchewan by our political majority.”

 

Sexy pink handcuffs

Reporters asked Durocher before packing up if he’s planning any future advocacy. He found some humour in the moment.

“I thought it would be funny to get a pair of sexy pink handcuffs, go into the legislative assembly and say, ‘I’m here to see Scott Moe. He’s been a very bad boy. Can you take me to him?’” Durocher said. 

“And then after the guards say, ‘I’m sorry, but you don’t have an appointment and this is inappropriate, we’re going to have to ask you to leave,’ I was going to say, ‘Don’t worry, we have a safe word. It’s ‘reconciliation’ and trust me, he won’t use it.’”

 

All videos by Michael Bramadat-Willcock, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, National Observer

© Copyright Humboldt Journal

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