Author: Stephanie Cram, journalism trainer
Back in June, I attended the elementary graduation at Martin Mckay Memorial School in Sachigo Lake First Nation. Most of it was very adorable, with the kids receiving awards and posing for pictures. Then one of the teachers read a letter to the parents which crushed me. In the letter, she wrote that the teachers had been entrusted with caring for the students over the past 10 months, and now they are giving the students back to their parents much wiser and more responsible. This letter tugged at my heartstrings, not because I’m overly sensitive, but rather because of what it represents about living in the North.
My home in Sachigo Lake First Nation is a motel, where I meet several people who come to the community to work, and are often only here for a short period of time. I have shared meals with these guests, and got to know them all, even if just briefly. The most difficult part of living in the motel is having to constantly say goodbye to my temporary roommates. I have done my share of moving around, but I always rely on a stable group of friends and family. I don’t like change. I hold on for dear life to my friendships, and even though people do come and go in my life, I am not used to such a quick turnaround of meeting someone, and then having them leave a few weeks—or even days—later.
I’ve come to realize that when you live in the North, you have to learn to be comfortable with saying goodbye. Here in Sachigo Lake, the community sees teachers, nurses, support workers, construction workers, and people like myself, come to their community for the short period until their work is done. Some return, but a lot of them don’t. It’s just a way of life up here.
Having to say goodbye took more of a personal note back in September. I was back home in Edmonton, Alberta for my holiday break when I received a message in the middle of the night that my friend in Sachigo Lake passed away. At first, I was confused because I had spoken to him the week before over Facebook, and had told him that I’d be seeing him back in Sachigo in less than a week.
Before leaving for Edmonton he took me out on his boat, showing me the house he grew up in, which he called his baby house, and also his father’s cabin – both of which were a short boat ride from the community. I was jealous of the amazing childhood he must have experienced living on a small island with his family. We ate dinner that night floating on the beautiful Ponask Lake, and he told me stories about hunting.
What I didn’t know that night was how much he must have been suffering, since he took his own life only a few weeks later. He always seemed so happy, but one of the deceptive elements of depression is that it’s not often spotted.
September was Suicide Awareness Month, and it is an important issue we need to continue to discuss, since there is still a stigma associated with mental health issues. Depression and suicide can impact anyone, but it does disproportionally impact Indigenous communities of Canada.
According to Health Canada, suicide remains the leading cause of death among Indigenous youth and adults up to 44 years old. The suicide rate for Indigenous men is 126 per 100,000, which is a startling contrast to the 24 per 100,000 rate for non-Indigenous men. For Indigenous women the suicide rate is 35 per 100,000 compared to the rate 5 per 100,000 for non-Indigenous women.
Here in Sachigo Lake, the community is taking a stand against suicide and depression. As a response to the recent tragedy, Chief and Council held a prayer walk on September 11, 2015 to bring awareness to the issue of mental health and suicide. The hope was that the walk would encourage anyone suffering to seek help. It was amazing to see the community come together and walk the road that loops around the community. From children to elders, it felt like literally everyone in town was there to show their support.
The people from Sachigo Lake are some of the most resilient I’ve ever met. They’ve become accustomed to saying goodbye as outsiders come and go from the community. But there is one goodbye I hope they will not have to become accustomed to—the final, often unexpected goodbye of losing a loved one to suicide.