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Let’s Talk About Suicide: Northern Youth Find Strength Within Circle

Photos courtesy of Alistair Maitland and Kwanlin Dun First Nation.
September 10, 2015

If you were to create a list of topics not to discuss at the dinner table what would it include? Religion? Politics? The Toronto Maple Leafs last Stanley Cup win? All joking aside, chances are that for most people this list would also include suicide. But why? The reality is that approximately 4000 people die from suicide every year in Canada and it is the second leading cause of death for young people.


Despite this grave reality, there continues to be enormous stigma around the issue resulting in widespread silence and isolation–often in the communities who need to talk about it the most. This includes many Indigenous communities who are faced with disproportionately high suicide rates many of which being in the north and many of which being youth. The causes behind suicide amongst Indigenous youth go far beyond the scope of this article, however, it is critical to acknowledge how deeply rooted they are in the violent history of colonization, assimilation and intergenerational trauma that our communities have experienced. We are strong, beautiful and resilient, but we are also still healing and for some this healing journey continues to be more difficult than others. So who is trying to do something about it?

Over the past several years a growing network of Indigenous youth across Canada–and all of Turtle Island–have emerged as leaders in promoting Indigenous health and well-being. We are pursuing post-secondary education more than ever before, taking on leadership roles across nearly every profession, fighting for our rights at the local, regional, national and international levels, and in each of these spaces strengthening our voice in identifying what we need and how we are going to make it happen. We are building ourselves up not just out of responsibility and respect for ourselves, but for our families, our nations and the land and teachings that hold us all together.


One amazing example of Indigenous youth who are actively promoting healing and wellness in their community is the Our Voices collective, a group of young Indigenous change makers committed to holding up their youth and their culture in the north. The inception of Our Voices began in December 2013, in an effort to initiate a dialogue on how young people could support one another and work together to stop the tragic losses experienced within the region.. It is ran by over 30 council members, 8 steering committee members and 3 co-chairs. The first Our Voices Summer Gathering was held in August 2014 in Teslin, Yukon, which involved youth participation from across the Yukon, Northern British Columbia, Northwest Territories and Alaska.

This year, in August 2015, I was fortunate enough to be a part of Our Voices’ second gathering titled Strength Within Circle, hosted on Kwanlin Dün territory near Whitehorse, Yukon. The event was truly inspiring, blowing me away with how much love and attention to detail was put into every aspect of the weekend. Over three days youth listened to guest speakers and participated in workshops related to mental health, confidence building, cultural revitalization, lateral violence, leadership development and healing, all with a beautiful balance between supporting each other through difficult conversations and laughter. Collective and individual empowerment was felt across the entire weekend, with the tone set perfectly on the first day by Chief Doris Bill as she stated, “today we have an opportunity to help our youth. For too long our young people have been told to follow rather than lead, sit down rather than stand up, and we know that doesn’t work.” This message was echoed by all of the guest speakers and many of the youth participants themselves asserting the important notion that we are not the leaders of tomorrow, but the leaders of right now and so we must come together to push for change and healing in our communities.


The gathering was originally scheduled for later in the year, but recent suicides and murders of Indigenous youth in the region moved Our Voices to bring everyone together sooner. This also impacted the sessions that were offered, with several workshops spported by elders and other professionals to help youth talk about suicide and coping with grieving and loss. In one ‘suicideTALK’ session led by Margot Neely from the Northern Institute of Social Justice, we were encouraged to break the silence around suicide, sharing stories about loved ones who we had lost and strategies for how we could help prevent it from happening in the future. One youth shared that this was the first time he ever felt like he was actually allowed to talk about suicide, shedding light on the isolation that surrounds these deaths and the great need to open up dialogue as a prevention and healing strategy. As explained by Our Voices co-chair and co-founder Kluane Adamek, “there should be no reason that youth are feeling this way, but they are and so we need to be OK with talking about it. They need spaces to share their feelings and stories and to know that as a collective community we are here to support them.” Beyond just these difficult conversations Kluane expressed the importance of celebrating life as well. She explained, “we need to celebrate the positive things that youth are doing, whether it is someone choosing life and committing to do better or someone who is out there making a difference in the community…

We need to be able to honor our young people while they’re with us not just once they’re gone.” Now where do we go from here? Alongside the tremendous positive change we have seen ignited by Indigenous youth leaders across the country there continues to be enormous challenges. Our youth continue to face inequality in areas such as education, the child welfare system, access to healthcare, representation in the media, violence and the criminal justice system–just to name a few. These issues are connected to the history of colonization and assimilation that I referenced earlier, a context that is actually not a history, but an ongoing reality for Indigenous peoples everywhere. These challenges are not insurmountable, but they are real and if we are to overcome them we need everyone, all of our youth, adults, elders and non-Indigenous allies to play a part. Not one more youth should go to bed at night questioning their self-worth and dignity. Not one more youth should feel isolated or hopeless to the point of committing suicide. We all deserve love, compassion and to feel like we have a place in this world and through our challenges and worst days we need to hold onto hope for a better tomorrow. Marsi/Thank-you to everyone I met on Kwanlin Dün and Taa’an Kwächän territory for gifting me with so many unforgettable stories, teachings and laughs during my visit. I am so grateful to have met you all and to have witnessed the true definition of strength within circle.


For more information on suicide prevention please visit the Canadian Mental Health Association , the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, or Government of Canada information on preventing suicide and how to access support. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, or have a plan to end your life, please call 9-1-1.

*Links updated as of June 2023