Of One Heart, Bringing Our Youth Together

Sayt k’üülm goot

Grand Chief Ed John and Jane Morley, QC

Reprinted from "Suicide" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (7), p. 28-29

It is indescribable and unforgettable—the power, the energy and the heart of 150 youth from three First Nations in British Columbia. These youth came together to advise Elders, policy makers, leaders and service providers about how to enhance life in their communities. This gathering came to be known as Sayt k’üülm goot, Tsimshian for “of one heart,” and was subtitled “Bringing Our Youth Together.”

Aboriginal communities, being small and close-knit, are devastated by death. Even more devastating is the death of a young person by suicide. The statistics suggest suicide rates five times greater than the Canadian general population for Aboriginal males ages 15 to 24¸ and seven times greater for young Aboriginal females.

The First Nations Summit and the Child and Youth Officer for BC agreed in 2004 to bring youth, community members and policy decision-makers together to explore ways of preventing suicide. Prince Rupert was identified as a location for the gathering. The target groups were Nisga’a, Haida and Tsimshian youth ages 15 to 27. Local community members and youth participated in planning the three-day event held May 4–6, 2005.

Prince Rupert was chosen because of the community’s exemplary work in suicide crisis management following the deaths of youth from surrounding First Nations communities. Non-Aboriginal communities worked together with First Nations to prevent suicides by connecting with, and supporting, vulnerable youth. Subsequently, Prince Rupert developed a protocol for interagency response to future crises.

In preparation for the event, visits were conducted to interested First Nations communities to gather input from youth, front-line workers and concerned community members. Comments gathered through this process suggested that suicide is connected with loss or alienation from self, family, culture and community. Four barriers to healing were identified:

  • inflexible government policies that interfere with leadership’s capacity to meet the needs of the community

  • difficulty accessing mental health services, and lack of culturally appropriate assessment and treatment

  • conditioning of Canadian society to view First Nations people as inferior

  • internalized colonization among Aboriginal people themselves, which fosters dependency, promoting minimal accountability to the needs of the community

A literature review of reports and research related to Aboriginal youth suicide and of jurisdictional issues was also undertaken.

On May 4, 2005, a youth pizza and dance event and an informal policy roundtable dinner were held. At the roundtable dinner, participants shared their thoughts about the community visits and literature review presentations.

On May 5, the Inter-Nations Youth Forum opened with a powerful address by a young man who had contemplated suicide twice. His story instilled hope for the future. “I’m your brother, I’m your son, I’m your uncle, I’m your father,” he said simply. This was an idea that resonated profoundly with the youth. When questioned later, the majority of the youth connected this speaker’s experience with their own. The participants worked in groups, envisioning a better future. The youth then conveyed to the whole group their ideas for achieving that future:

“[The youth] invited us to become bigger. They invited us to do things differently, to truly engage and work with them to achieve community transformations. . . They said that the answer to these questions about suicide and community healing is WE. Using the word ‘WE’ has major implications, because it suggests a place that we need to arrive at together, a place where youth come to take responsibility for the changes in their communities.” (from a report prepared by the facilitator)

The youth challenged the adults to support them to:

  1. speak out and tell their stories (the “I” stage) – by encouraging youth—through peer groups, mentorship, forums and other processes—to speak out about suicide; by enhancing support groups and counsellors in communities

  2. be heard (the “I-You” stage) – by engaging with youth and listening to them about how individual or community actions impact them; by establishing and sustaining youth opportunities to speak with Elders, decision-makers and leaders; by acting on ideas from youth

  3. engage creatively (the “We” stage) – by recognizing the valuable role youth can play in building new communities based on the traditional laws and respect; by working together with youth constructively

Recommendations included greater involvement in cultural activities; positive liaison with authorities, especially police; more recreational activities; options for volunteer work; parent involvement in youth activities; sustainable work experience programs; more community celebrations and feasts; and developing youth leadership.

On May 6, 2005, the policy roundtable met and addressed these questions: 1) How do we support the energy, the leadership and the aspirations of these young people who have invited us all to work together? and 2) What should immediate and long-term next steps be?

The roundtable participants, clearly affected by hearing the youth voice on the previous day, noted a common thread: a call for unity among nations, a return to traditional law, and the need for youth participation in programming and planning.

Some of the immediate steps suggested were a follow-up inter-Nation youth gathering; presentations to be made to First Nations organizations; quick implementation of RCMP commitments to ensure that officers train in communities and work in a positive atmosphere with youth; development of youth councils; and cross-cultural training of Ministry of Human Resources’ workers.

Some longer-term recommendations were development of a comprehensive suicide prevention plan; budgets for community youth activities; a follow-up meeting to review progress; and a meeting of federal and provincial government representatives and First Nations leaders to come up with creative ways to address barriers created by inflexible funding and increase responsiveness to the needs of youth and communities.

To achieve change there needs to be respectful and inclusive commitment on the part of front-line workers, policy-makers, community leaders, Elders, police and youth themselves. Success and sustainability rest initially on the shoulders of policy-makers, but community and youth participation are vital as plans evolve. Because, in the end, there is only WE … OF ONE HEART Sayt k’üülm goot.

 
About the Authors

Grand Chief Ed John is a member of the First Nations Summit Task Group
Jane Morley is Child and Youth Officer for British Columbia

Footnotes
  1. Suicide Prevention Advisory Group. (2003). Acting on what we know: Preventing youth suicide in First Nations. Ottawa, ON: Assembly of First Nations and Health Canada. www.hc-sc.gc. ca/fnih-spni/pubs/promotion_e.html#suicide

  2. This was a report written for policy roundtable participants; it was not published.

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