Wabun youth gathering: a template for suicide prevention

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Suicide is a major problem in First Nations right across the country. As a First Nation person, I have been touched by suicide in the loss of friends from my community in Attawapiskat. Too many wonderful young Native people who are full of potential are taking their lives for no good reason.

In schools, non-Native and Native, we teach young people about mathematics, history, geography, language and science but to a great degree, educators don’t provide a lot of skills related to dealing with suicide, abuse, violence, sexuality, teen pregnancy and addictions.

The difference between a young First Nation person getting through those difficult teen years or not has do with education. If youth are taught the necessary skills in which to identify problem areas that relate to critical issues, such as suicide, then they have more of a chance of rising to their potential. It can mean the difference between life and death.

As a participant in the annual Wabun Youth Gathering hosted and developed by the Wabun Health Services of Wabun Tribal Council, I can tell you that there are many young people getting the information they need to better deal with big issues like suicide. For years now I have been watching young Wabun First Nation members learn about their Native traditions and culture in all types of workshops and sessions. I have seen them graduate from preteen juniors to teenage seniors and many have developed to become chaperones in leadership roles.

Gatherings like this don’t simply just happen. They are the result of the initiative of people who realize that something must be done to help our First Nation youth and are willing to do the work to make things happen. The Wabun Chiefs, Wabun Executive Director Shawn Batise, Wabun Health Director Jean Lemieux and Regional Crisis Team Coordinator Mike Archer deserve a resounding thanks on behalf of their youth for producing the annual Wabun Youth Gathering which has been running for eight years now. For detailed information on the Youth Gathering go to: www.wabunyouthgathering.com

This type of gathering, is making a difference, it focuses on skills development, teaching youth how to deal with with issues like suicide, addictions, violence and abuse. When you bring youth together for a week of learning and skills development with an emphasis on traditions and culture and in a safe and quiet place only good things can happen. I have seen shy withdrawn First Nation children change before my eyes over the eight years I have attended the youth gathering. They now feel good about themselves, they have a better understanding of who they are and they have some very important skills to draw from.

Some graduates that come to mind are Jaimee Roy, of Matachewan First Nation and Sam Kloetstra of Mattagami First Nation who have moved on to take leadership roles in education and social work. Tianna McKay-Golinowski from Mattagami First Nation was on hand this year as an adult chaperone as she prepares for a career in health care.

I have seen these young people discover their traditions and culture in Pow Wows, the drum, singing, dance and arts over the years. In addition I have seen them come together in groups under the guidance of renown healing facilitators like Clayton Small and Maria Treviso. Clayton runs a program to assist Aboriginal youth known as Native Pride which you can read about on his website at: www.nativeprideus.org

Through these sessions the Wabun youth learned so much about how to deal with the major issues that teens face. Strong friendships are forged during these annual gatherings and much of what these young people learn they bring back to their families and friends in their First Nations. That means that change does indeed happen. This change is slow and gradual but it is apparent and even if it means that just one child has been saved from suicide, early pregnancy or some sort of abuse then all the work done to make the Wabun Youth Gathering a reality has been a success.

I encourage First Nation and non-Native communities, educators and organizations to consider developing similar gatherings where our young people can learn the skills they need to really make a difference in their lives. With the right skills in their pockets these youth can all rise to their potential.

Xavier Kataquapit writes a weekly column at www.underthenorthernsky.com

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