Archbishop Murray Chatlain, with First Nations children in this Register file photo, says the Catholic Church has to be there for families facing despair on a daily basis. Recently, six youth have taken their lives in his Keewatin Le-Pas diocese. Register file photo

Church must journey with First Nations youth during suicide crisis

By  Mickey Conlon, Catholic Register Special
  • November 11, 2016

REGINA – With six First Nations’ youth recently taking their own lives in northern Saskatchewan, Canadian bishops who have ministered in mission territory say the Church must continue to be a presence in these remote communities for those experiencing deep pain.

Archbishop Murray Chatlain is the Archbishop of Keewatin Le-Pas, a vast diocese that takes in large portions of northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba and a small corner of northwest Ontario. It’s an area heavily populated by First Nations, Metis and Dene people. Chatlain has seen far too many youth from these communities take their lives in an ongoing crisis that has only recently garnered much attention in Canada.

“The amount of grieving takes its toll,” said Chatlain. “You can get weighed down by the darkness of the situation.”

The Catholic Church needs to go beyond helping families during the grieving process, said the archbishop. It has to be there for families that deal with despair on a daily basis.

“There’s something with the whole culture and community, there’s a lot of despair and lack of hope and purpose,” said Chatlain. “That’s all contributing to these number of suicides.

“So as Church, our presence, our trying to help with grieving and then trying to find some ways of helping young people see the big picture of knowing how to pray, how to reach out to God and trying to reach out to the other people God gives them to.”

The despair and lack of hope in these communities saw six aboriginal girls, all between the age of 10 and 14, take their lives over a four-week period in northern Saskatchewan communities during October. Crisis teams have been deployed to the affected communities, La Ronge, Deschambault Lake, Stanley Mission and the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation.

La Ronge has been especially hard hit, with two of the girls coming from that community. Chatlain said there has been a strong ministerial presence at St. John Vianney Church, a mission parish that does not have a resident priest. Its pastor, Fr. Lawrence DeMong, spends about one-third of his time in the town, said Chatlain. That means a lay presence is essential.

“Definitely a lot falls on the laypeople,” he said. “They have tried to have some youth ministry going in that region, there have been efforts to reach out to the young people. But there’s so much more that needs to happen.”

It’s something the community itself recognizes, said Chatlain. One program that has been tried is White Lightning, where peers support peers around suicide issues.

“It’s not flying in experts from other places — which can be helpful — but it’s trying to build up the capacity to deal with some of the situations from the community itself,” he said.

“They’re trying to figure out what can we do today for the young people that gives them some spiritual tools to try to find more hope and support in their ups and downs.”

Corey O’Soup is the new Saskatchewan children’s advocate and was thrust into dealing with the suicide crisis in his first days on the job. The father of five from the Key First Nation agreed that the solutions must come from within. He told MBC Radio that the solution doesn’t originate in Regina or Saskatoon, “the community has to lead the discussions.”

Community leaders in La Ronge have been working with the Red Cross to develop a community safety plan that would see youth workers hired for each of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band’s six communities. The youth workers would offer suicide prevention training to parents, schools and the community, as well as creating activities and programs to meet the different needs of the community.

The Catholic Church, among other denominations, has “to offer the covenant of healing, compassion and love that Jesus brought to us by His incarnation and redemption,” said Bishop Noel Simard of Valleyfield, Que. The Church, he said, must share in the responsibility to help because of its role in the residential schools where the Canadian government co-opted churches in trying to assimilate aboriginals.

“We caused big problems, lots of tension, in their families,” said Simard, who before his current appointment served as auxiliary bishop in northern Ontario’s Sault Ste. Marie diocese, with its significant First Nations’ population. “So we need to attempt to reconcile with them and to help them reconcile with themselves and each other. The family is very broken on the reserves.”

Still, it remains a complex situation, said Chatlain.

“I ask people to refrain from making simple analysis or quick solutions, but to engage and try to get a sense of how much depression and how much cultural upheaval there has been in northern communities,” he said. “There’s no simple answers but I think the ways we are all trying to wrestle with what little parts we can do, what God is asking us to do, to try and make a positive difference.”

And it goes beyond just the suicide crisis, according to Chatlain.

“There’s a lot of expression of the pain that is there,” he said.

“I encourage people to pray and educate themselves more on our aboriginal reality. This isn’t about us doing it for the people, but it is how do we helpfully accompany.”

(With files from Evan Boudreau. Conlon is a freelance writer in Regina, Sask.)

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