I want to thank Gloria Hendrick-Laliberte, Education Advisor with KEEWAYTINOOK OKIMAKANAK (Northern Chiefs) for inviting me and giving me the honour to be a part of the Anti-bullying and suicide prevention workshops in Deer Lake First Nation on March 26, 27 & 28.
I will be sharing my story of loss to suicide and talking about how I have found strength and healing through photography as my outlet and expressing my feelings and pain. I believe that art, writing, music and keeping my body active are not only healing but have also created the path of my lifelong growth and learning.
I would like to take this opportunity to invite anyone who will be in Deer Lake, who have lost loved ones and friends to suicide, to share your story with me. If you would like to be photographed and share your story with the Collateral Damage Project, please visit the ‘Participate’ page.
Keewaytinook Okimakanak, which means Northern Chiefs in Oji-Cree, is a non-political Chiefs Council serving Deer Lake, Fort Severn, Keewaywin, McDowell Lake, North Spirit Lake and Poplar Hill First Nations. The organization is directed by the Chiefs of the member First Nations who form the Board of Directors. Through its close awareness of community needs and its team approach, the Council advises and assists its member First Nations. The Council provides services in the areas of health, education, economic development, employment assistance, legal, public works, finance and administration, and computer communications (K-Net Services). The Executive Director liaises with the six Chiefs, with the staff of the Council and with other organizations and governments.
When I arrived at the Deer Lake airport I was welcomed by Ila, the Principal of Deer Lake School, who gave me a ride to the school where the workshops were taking place. Over the next few days, as I got to know Ila, I was reminded what true leadership is. Ila is passionate about making her community a better place by inspiring students and teachers with great expectations of mutual respect. Ila inspires leadership in all the teachers and this became vividly clear in the students that I met. On our way to the school I quickly learned that Deer Lake is a community spread out among a large area although it has a relatively small population of 1000.
When I arrived at the school, teachers were already taking part in anti-bullying workshops and as I took the opportunity to tour the school I noticed that anti-bullying was being taken very seriously. Here some samples of the student’s art work displayed throughout the school.
Peter, Ernie and Tannis work in counselling, advocacy and crisis response and traveled from Red Lake and Thunder Bay to support the suicide awareness and prevention workshop that I would lead the next day. Besides their support of the workshop, they were also fantastic tour guides. Tannis invited me for a tour of the community and also invited me to join them at the TV station for an interview and to talk with the community about our work in suicide prevention. This, as it turns out, became a great lesson for me in communication. Over the past few years I’ve done many interviews on radio and TV so I thought I had an idea what this was going to be like…Lesson one, don’t assume. As we arrived at the Ennis A Meekis, Channel 21 TV station, Ernie joked about the fans that would be waiting for autographs after my TV appearance.
Now as it turns out, this TV station was not what I was used to. Tannis said the instructions were; 1) turn the camera towards the table, away from the bulletin board where community announcements were posted 2) turn on the mic 3) start talking 4) after you’re finished, turn the camera back to the bulletin board. And just like that we were live in every home in Deer Lake. We talked about who were are and that we were in Deer Lake for a Suicide Prevention workshop… “Everyone is invited.” During our live broadcast, Tannis mentioned that she would like to buy some fish to bring home…we all laughed about it and Ernie also mentioned that he is looking for rabbits if anyone had some for sale. Well, quicker than these comments could have been re-tweeted on social media, a young man entered the door of the TV station with a bag of frozen fish for sale, “who asked about fish for sale?” Now this is effective communication!
So, I was feeling like this is what it must be like on the Oprah Show or Ellen DeGeneres Show and as Ernie promised, fans would be waiting after the interview. Well, there were no fans waiting for autographs, but I believe I must be famous because after all we were in Hollywood.
As we stopped to take this photo, I noticed quite the odor that seemed to be coming from the lake at the base of “Hollywood Hill”…I also noticed a sign that read, “Deer Lake Swimming Pool.” It turns out that the “Deer Lake Swimming Pool” is where they dump sewage.
So, just to get a few things straight… I’m not a famous movie star, although I did appear in a Hollywood movie studio and I won’t be going swimming in the Deer Lake Swimming Pool although I love swimming.
Our next part of the tour was to see the ice road that is a vital part of not only connecting Deer Lake to other communities but also critical in providing supplies such as food, diesel fuel, construction material and essentially all of the basics of life in a more affordable way. The ice roads in the North are truly a life link for all remote First Nations communities and while most people I know look forward to warm summers, people in remote First Nations communities, including Deer Lake, cherish everyday that the ice roads remain safely open. As we were preparing to leave, the big news in the community was that a new house was being brought in on a transport trailer.
Our next stop was at the Band Office to meet Chief Roy Dale Meekis and a few of the Councillors. Chief Meekis reminded us of the importance of suicide prevention in his community.
When we returned to the school the teachers were finishing up their anti-bullying workshop and dinner was being prepared in the kitchen. That evening, a family literacy night was planned and the community was invited. When I learned about the evening’s activities, it reminded me of a program that Susan Aglukark (Advisor to the Collateral Damage Project) was trying to do in communities in Nunavut. The evening’s activities was intended to bring families together for reading, games and life skills. To me it was a huge success especially when I was able to site down with two young boys to read “Goosebumps.”
The next day, after a great breakfast with the staff at the school, we began the suicide prevention talks. I shared my story of losing my father to suicide and the impact this has on my life. I talked about my work with the Collateral Damage Project, our team and the achievements and obstacles. The questions and conversation was focused on what we can do differently and how to move forward. There is now a SafeTALK instructor in Deer Lake and I encouraged all teachers and staff to get trained as soon as they can. In the afternoon, Gloria and I each took a group into a classroom to brainstorm on three questions; 1) what issues are leading to suicide in Deer Lake? 2) what is being done now to prevent suicide? 3) what can be done to prevent suicide? As you may suspect, these were emotionally challenging questions and some of the proposed solutions lead to some very difficult issues. I was incredibly encouraged by the willingness and expressed need to move forward.
To end off our day, a very emotional and powerful sharing circle was led by our elder, Ernie. This is what I believe all of our work is about; sharing, healing, learning and moving forward.
In the evening I did a “Photo-voice” session with a group of kids from the school. Again, I shared my story and talked about the power of photography as a tool of communication and personal expression. This was an engaging and fun session and each student was able to take their own photographs after learning about the basics of photography. There were a couple of students who shared their ambition of wanting to be artists and I certainly won’t be surprised to see any of them as famous photographers or musicians in the future.
Here’s a photo of Gloria (middle), Ila and myself saying goodbye after a couple very good days in Deer Lake. I look forward to coming back.
As I flew out of Deer Lake I realized that although I was there to present and perhaps teach, it was I that learned the most over the past few days. I am truly grateful to Gloria Hendrick-Laliberte, Education Advisor with KEEWAYTINOOK OKIMAKANAK (Northern Chiefs) for inviting me and giving me the honour to be a part of the Anti-bullying and suicide prevention workshops in Deer Lake First Nation.