The second Dialogue for Life conference of 2023 emphasized the importance of mental health awareness in Montreal November 13-18. The event addressed ways that Indigenous cultural traditions can support struggling communities. Through encouraging healing and self expression, delegates sought to promote life and reduce suicide rates.
Organized by First Nations and Inuit Suicide Prevention Association of Quebec (FNISPAQ), the event attracted Indigenous peoples from across eastern Canada. Delegates acknowledged that the years of quarantine have exacerbated feelings of disconnection. In the wake of the Covid pandemic, frontline workers are confronting a mental health crisis.
Stephanie Iancy Héroux Brazeau has been attending conferences for years as a volunteer; this year, she came as a powwow dancer. Iancy Héroux Brazeau noted that dance can have a medicinal effect, particularly as a means to release emotions. She found the powwow to be a useful tool to process the suicides that have occurred in her Anishinaabe community of Lac-Simon.
During a workshop, Iancy Héroux Brazeau claimed that culture is key to suicide prevention. “I think it’s key to return to our roots, to who we are, to be proud of who we are, to return to our ways of life that have been erased,” she said.
The Dialogue for Life activities also included healing ceremonies. Cree mother Vivianne Snowboy led the Cedar Bath ceremony. She said that as a young girl, she learned about the transformative potential of ceremonies from her father.
Snowboy also hosted a workshop about advocating for Indigenous people within the justice system. She stated that the current system worsens the mental health of Indigenous people, and needs to “take a step back.” She promotes “restorative justice” in place of existing punitive conventions.
Marc Lafontaine hosted a workshop about trying to help men open up about their feelings. “My challenge is to get people, men especially, used to expressing themselves,” said Lafontaine, an Innu from Ekuanitshit. “Because ‘men don’t cry.’ But, that’s not true. A man is ‘strong, doesn’t talk’… but he needs to express himself.”
Lafontaine pointed out that traditional land-based activities can be helpful to such men. “They’re more positive, happier, they talk more, make jokes, it changes,” he noted, concluding that a change in environment can result in an shift of outlook.
Connor Lafortune, a queer Anishinabe man, shared a life-promotion toolkit he’s produced with a group of Indigenous youths. He claimed that in the western world, Indigenous people are often exposed to “deficit language.” Narratives about the community could switch to a “strength base” instead. Lafortune’s toolkit gives advice to community workers on how to help young people value and accept themselves.
Lafortune says that addressing negative self-image is vital to life promotion; a more proactive strategy than just suicide prevention.
“Suicide prevention is really something that is on the ground, it is taking folks out of the water just before they drown. It’s often the only option we have in communities,” he claimed. “However, life promotion really takes a step back, keeps folks grounded and rooted into the earth, and it’s not even letting them seek the water in the first place.”
Another conference will take place in March 2024, with a focus on identities and youth engagement.