At this year’s annual Dialogue for Life conference, held at Montreal’s Sheraton Hotel February 14-18, workshop and training organizers shared evolving attitudes and strategies for addressing suicide prevention in Indigenous communities.
“The one-on-one sessions with healers, workshops and training are a source of information but also, they come to recharge,” said new association director Lori May Dubé, who was hired in November. “It’s part of their wellbeing.”
Presented by the First Nation and Inuit Suicide Prevention Association of Quebec and Labrador (FNISPAQL), this year’s theme was mental health in the context of the Covid pandemic, which forced the conference’s cancellation in 2020. As the non-profit association stabilizes, leaders are planning the next edition for its usual time in November.
“It was suggested that there be two conferences per year, possibly one in Quebec City,” shared Dubé. “I’d also like to go see communities. We’re still recuperating from the pandemic and life is costing more – things that have an effect on mental health.”
A Sixties Scoop survivor whose mother is missing or murdered, and whose brother took his own life, Dubé has been a social worker in Montreal’s First Nations community since FNISPAQL’s creation in 2001. With over 300 members across Quebec, the association has grown to encompass an expanding variety of perspectives about mental health.
“I see in the last few years more openness to talk about suicide, a slow destigmatization of mental health and addiction issues,” explained Dubé. “There’s less shame and blaming. The [public inquiry] commissions validated individuals’ journeys with different issues. It’s very positive but shows a need for more funding.”
During the two-day Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), Kateri Oesterreich and Chad Diabo from Kahnawake Mohawk Nation provided standardized tools for participants to de-escalate moments of crisis so more at-risk individuals remain safe within their communities rather than being taken away for medical treatment.
“It’s essential you know how to connect them to resources to help them talk about their thoughts of suicide,” said Oesterreich. “Be authentic and non-judgmental. When you understand suicide, you can provide caring insight and support, and that change helps keep them alive.”
In another workshop about lateral violence, Oesterreich and Diabo asked if it’s really the way of Indigenous people. Exploring why teasing sometimes crosses the line into bullying, they suggested that understanding how verbal abuse became normalized in residential schools can help break this cycle in communities.
“I find people are still very defensive,” Oesterreich asserted. “You can’t create change until you’ve acknowledged how your words are rippling out. We’re all guilty of lateral violence but it’s learning to forgive yourself and recognizing that behaviour, so you don’t do it again.”
Other workshops examined the unique challenges faced by those with neural differences like Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), an under-diagnosed disability believed to affect 2-4% of Canadians. As mothers are often shamed for admitting there was alcohol exposure during pregnancy, people living with FASD may not be getting the specialized support they need.
“We need to discover what their gifts are and allow them to be nurtured in our communities because they do have something to teach us,” said Oesterreich. “They’re the 10-second person living in a 1-second world. Their processing is slower. Maybe that’s the message we’re supposed to embrace, that we need to slow down.”
Frontline workers at the conference appreciated the opportunity to relax between workshops with a powwow, banquet and afternoon yoga sessions. There was new funding to sponsor youth, who were increasingly involved in sharing circles and preparing banners for the final day’s Walk for Life.
Alongside workshops exploring intergenerational trauma, autism, postpartum depression and 2SLGBTQ issues, participants could schedule individual sessions with healers like Chisasibi’s Harry Snowboy. While Snowboy has been involved with the conference for many years, this year his daughter Vanessa Snowboy also offered healing sessions plus a workshop about overcoming sexual and domestic violence.
“This is the first time I shared the deep details of my story,” Vanessa told the Nation. “I think my mom gave me the idea to talk about the courage I had to come out of it. People said I gave them courage to share their story as well.”
Vanessa was sexually assaulted by three men at a powwow, who were traditional dancers and well respected in the community. She believes it’s important to discuss the background of her abusers because she knows victims sometimes fear the backlash about calling out influential community members.
After this incident, Vanessa began drinking heavily and trying to hurt other men by taking them from their wives or girlfriends. She hit rock bottom in 2016, suffering all types of abuse from an ex-boyfriend who once left her so badly beaten in the snow that she might have frozen to death if she hadn’t been found in time.
“I still feel very sorry for what I’ve done to people, destroying families because I thought the only thing men were good for was to hurt me,” admitted Vanessa. “I’ve been sober going on five years now. I’ve come a long way from who I was and what happened to me. For people who went through similar things, there is hope and help out there.”
Now applying to university sociology programs with hopes of working in prisons, the 27-year-old no longer carries hatred in her heart and has worked hard to become the person she needed when she was 20. While her healing journey continues, Vanessa said she had to forgive her abusers to move forward.
“Even though it might not seem like it, there’s somebody out there who believes you,” said Vanessa. “When I first shared my story, my close friends who were close with my abusers showed me that respect. They’re still my friends today. I can always be that someone you can tell anything to – that someone you might need right now.”