Some, like the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, call it a “suicide crisis.” Others, like Taylar Bèlanger, call it life.
Bèlanger has lost five friends to suicide; more, she said, if she counts friends of friends.
“The first time that myself and my friend group had to face somebody who committed, it was very hard,” said Bèlanger, a Métis woman from northern Saskatchewan.
“We didn’t know what was going on, we were just sitting in the classroom and we had the principal and a couple of other people come and grab us, the friends of who committed, and just told us that we lost a friend. We were all just very, very shocked.”
She said from there, the list just kept growing in a “rollercoaster of people committing.” But it wasn’t always that way.
Bèlanger grew up in Île-à-la-Crosse with a love of the environment and animals. She spent much of her time in her own little world. Tucked away in northern Saskatchewan, Île-à-la-Crosse is surrounded by a lake about 380 kilometres north of Prince Albert. Bèlanger said the people are humble and there’s a sense of togetherness.
She didn’t start to notice the effects of mental health until adolescence.
“I started to notice the signs after being mistreated very badly,” said Bèlanger. “Then noticing that there are other people facing these issues, whether it be alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence; all of those sorts of things really are an underlying factor of mental health.”
Eventually, she started experiencing mental illness herself.
“It impacted me quite a bit, to the point where I started to have the thoughts of committing, not knowing what the outcome would be,” said Bèlanger. “I just knew that I wasn’t valued, I didn’t feel valued.”
She internalized the thoughts in hopes of moving past the pain of these experiences.
“It was scary to be honest with you, because I thought, ‘Well why am I thinking like this?’ ” said Bèlanger. “But it’s these underlying causes that make us think that.”
Bèlanger said she didn’t commit because she knew the pain of losing someone.
“Though we feel very alone and scared and feel like nobody can value us, there’s a lot more people who can help us than we think,” said Bèlanger. “I just wanted to be a part of the transition in people’s lives that they need to see.”
A recent study, “ ‘Our Next Generation’: Moving Towards a Surveillance and Prevention Framework for Youth Suicide in Saskatchewan First Nations and Métis Populations,” highlights the above average suicide rates in Saskatchewan, especially for Indigenous populations. The report states specific rates for First Nations and Métis populations aren’t known because ethnicity is not tracked on official records.
Marlene McNab, a mental health therapist and lecturer of Indigenous social work at the First Nations University of Canada, says these high rates are a result of colonization.
“If we’re looking back to when Canada was settled, the government at the time developed numerous policies,” said McNab, an Indigenous woman. “They were destructive to Indigenous cultures, ways of life, to families … they had an impact on every aspect of life for Indigenous communities across Canada.”
McNab says the government needs to take onus of the issue.
“The government has done a terrible job of trying to fix the problems it created,” said McNab. “If the government would realize that what it’s been doing isn’t working, I think that’s a good starting place.”
For Bèlanger, it’s about connecting to her Métis culture and other people.
“Indigenous culture and tradition I feel is extremely important,” said Bèlanger. “We also have to start to train ourselves to be more aware and be mindful of our friends and be there for them no matter what.”
“Treat them as if you might not see that person the next day.”