Beyond grief: An Innu community’s stories, Part One
INTRODUCTION: THE LONELY PLACE
This article contains material about suicide that may be disturbing to some readers.
UASHAT — The weather had already started to turn when Nadeige Guanish set out for the pines at the edge of town.
Cold gusts of wind came howling off the Gulf of St-Lawrence, carrying the smell of saltwater into the foothills that overlook Uashat. Soon, a heavy snow would batter the coast and signal the beginning of another long, sub-Arctic winter in Innu territory.
Nadeige walked past the highway and into the woods, carrying her cellphone and a length of rope. She took a moment to send one last text message to a friend. There were no words, just the picture of a hand waving goodbye.
Only Nadeige knows why she chose to die in this lonely place. The 18-year-old had been assaulted in these woods on her way home from a party.
She may have sought the cover of the pines to ensure it would be a police officer, and not one of her nine siblings, who would discover her body.
Nadeige died on Oct. 31, 2015, next to the road that links Uashat and Maliotenam, sister communities near Sept-Îles.
Hers was the fifth suicide on the Innu territory in nine months.
Of those people who took their lives last year, Nadeige was the youngest. Her death was perhaps the most difficult for the community to accept.
She was, by all accounts, an affectionate and caring person. Nadeige plastered her Facebook page with images of her infant daughter, Ilyana, over captions like, “The best thing that ever happened to me.”
But friends and family say she seemed incapable of loving herself.
Since the Uashat suicides, at least two other indigenous communities in this country have struggled with similar crises — Kuujjuaq, in northern Quebec, and the Cross Lake First Nation in Manitoba.
Last year, police in Uashat and Maliotenam responded to 16 suicide attempts and 122 incidents in which people needed urgent psychological counselling.
The community, however, refuses to be defined by this crisis.
Despite great pain, residents invited three Montreal Gazette journalists last December. They wanted to share their struggles, but also the reasons they’re hopeful for the future.
These are some of their stories.
PART ONE: THE CRISIS
Just past a bend in the road is a tidy house with a satellite dish on the roof and an empty recycling bin by the porch. It looks very much like any other on the street except for the padlocked door and boarded-up windows.
This house on Massen St. is at the centre of the suicide crises that have shattered this town over two generations.Four members of Annie Vollant’s family killed themselves here. The house should be destroyed, says Vollant, and her lips tremble. Her uncle hanged himself in the shed, her brother in the basement.
Years later, so did her nephew and his mother. She is desperate to save not only her own children, but everyone’s children from the latest wave of suicides breaking over Uashat and neighbouring Maliotenam. Across the room her 3-year-old grandson Jake, oblivious to the adult talk, watches cartoons while eating Ketchup-flavoured chips.
Over the TV, candles are lined up in memory of dead relatives. “You know, nearly my whole family did that,” she says.
Vollant’s brother Charles had talked about suicide since he was a boy. The siblings’ lives were set adrift first when their grandmother passed away, then when their younger brother, barely 14, dropped dead on the street while sniffing solvents.
Vollant had begged her older brother. “I told him, ‘We’re just two in the family now. I need you. I couldn’t stand it if you did it.’ ” But he killed himself in the basement of the house on Massen St. His son and namesake was just a boy.
So when Charles Jr. stood in her doorway last February, asking for help, Vollant shivered. The young man looked so much like his father. They shared the same gaze, she says, and the same urge to flee their pain. Charles Jr., whom everyone called Wabush, had just left his girlfriend and their baby.
He said he was lost with nowhere to go — could he stay with his aunt a while? Of course, Vollant told him, but she set some ground rules. You can’t drink here. It felt good to be with Wabush, she says. “It was like being with my brother, and I took care of him.” But after three weeks he disappeared, and when he showed up days later, lumbering outside because he’d been drinking, Vollant saw he was in a bad way: “He was crying. ‘I can’t go on anymore, I’m going to die.’ ” Vollant, who agonized for years about what she might have done to save her brother, felt a fresh rush of guilt. “I said, ‘It’d be a shame to go now, you haven’t really lived yet.
You haven’t experienced real joy and happiness, you don’t know that yet. … Give it a try at least once, and then tell me what you think.” But she saw that her words failed to reach him. “He said, ‘Like father, like son. My father was 24, me too, I’m going to leave at 24.’ And he fled.” Later, Vollant called the house where Wabush’s maternal grandmother lived. A cousin answered the phone and said Wabush was sleeping. “I felt such relief.” Another two days passed and Vollant’s door banged open at midnight. Her niece crashed into her bedroom crying.
Come quick, she said, Wabush is hanging in the basement. He had killed himself in the same place as his father. Vollant clears her throat: “It did me in. As if I lost my brother twice.” Wabush’s death, on Feb. 11, was the first in the recent cluster of suicides in Uashat and Maliotenam. Four months later, in June, Wabush’s mother, Marie-Marthe Grégoire, hanged herself from those basement rafters. That same day, a teenager killed herself in a wooded path by the water.
Then, on Aug. 13, another suicide: 30-year-old Céline Michel-Rock. Nadeige Guanish died less than three months later. Every suicide reopens a collective wound in the community, Vollant says. “Makes no difference whether it’s someone close or not. It gets you. It hits hard and it turns you around and sets you back. “You say, ‘Oh no, not again, not another.’ And you feel powerless.” ***
Although there are no systematic studies comparing aboriginal suicide rates to those of other Canadians, government records suggest a significant imbalance.
Aboriginal youth, for instance, commit suicide at six times the rate of non-Aboriginal youth, according to Health Canada. And since most provinces don’t keep specific data on aboriginal suicide, it’s difficult to understand the scale of the problem. Ontario lost 42 indigenous people to suicide in 2012 — more than any other year on record.
This was not an anomaly; the province’s aboriginal suicide rates have risen steadily over the last decade. Territories in Nunavut, Manitoba and Quebec are also struggling. The latest to declare a state of emergency is Cross Lake reservation north of Winnipeg, which has had six suicides and another 140 attempts since December.
But it would be wrong to assume the high rates of aboriginal suicide is evidence of a national epidemic, says University of Victoria psychologist Christopher Lalonde, whose field of expertise is First Nations suicides. Eight years ago, he and another researcher collected data from B.C.’s 200 band councils, and they noticed that most of those First Nations communities were unaffected by suicide.
Their study, which spans a 13-year period, suggests that 90 per cent of aboriginal suicides occur in less than 10 per cent of communities. “We went looking for what explains the difference,” Lalonde said. “Why did some communities have no youth suicide for 10 or 12 years running, while others have rates that are 10 times higher than the provincial average?” The answer, Lalonde says, is complicated.
At least 10 men from Uashat and Maliotenam committed suicide in the mid-1990s. That cluster affected two families in particular: Vollant’s, including two uncles and two cousins in addition to her brother Charles. It also claimed several members of Sylvie Jourdain’s family, including her brother.
Jourdain and Vollant, whose families are linked by marriage as well as suicide, worry that the worst might not be over. Their children are now talking about wanting to die.
Is it a family curse? Jourdain wonders. “Does it run in families like a disease? Like diabetes?” A few years ago, her eldest son, then 21 and living in Montreal, tried to kill himself after losing a job. She got in her truck, drove to the city and brought him back to Uashat. “I kept him with me for six months,” she says, touching a medicine bag she wears like an amulet. “I told him, ‘I will always be here for you.’” Two weeks after Nadeige killed herself, Jourdain was in Montreal — at a suicide prevention conference — when she got a text message from her daughter. “I love you.”
Those words might have made other mothers smile, but they terrified Jourdain. She stepped out of the lecture hall and called her daughter, who told her, “I am tired, I’m fed up, I want to die.” She said she already had a rope ready. After frantically signalling to a friend to call the police in Uashat, Jourdain kept her daughter on the phone. “While we were speaking, I heard her make a choking sound and I felt my heart skip a beat. I thought, ‘I’m witnessing my own daughter’s suicide.’ ” But police made it to the house on time. “They went to her room. And they saw the rope, hanging from the ceiling,” Jourdain says. “They gave it to my son who was there. And they took her to the hospital.” ***
Everyone worries that Nadeige’s suicide won’t be the last.
Every time he hears an ambulance siren, Jean-Claude Therrien Pinette says he can feel his heart tighten. “You don’t want to panic but you wonder if we’ve just lost another kid,” says Therrien Pinette, who is the director of Uashat’s land protection office.
“That’s how nervous we’ve become, that’s how terrifying this is.” For front line workers in this small community, the tragedy is professional and personal. “The suicide attempts, some of the conjugal violence, it brings you in contact with people you know,” says chief of police Raynald Malec. “Maybe it’s your cousin; maybe it’s your brother-in-law. Maybe it’s your own sister. It happens a lot. “We don’t roll up with five cars to nab someone in a crisis and move onto the next call. It doesn’t work that way. We’re close to our people.” Malec, 41, knows what it’s like to grapple with the aftermath of suicide. It was once his job to answer the frantic calls for help. They tended to come across the airwaves at night, when he was on patrol. He says they had a disturbing similarity. “It was always: ‘Come quickly, he hanged himself,’ and then they would hang up,” says Malec, who’s been a cop in Uashat for nearly 20 years. “They give the address but they’re panicking. The details, you’re not getting too many. So you turn your sirens on and you roll.” Getting out of his patrol car, Malec would think of his own brother, who killed himself in a Quebec City jail cell.
“When you walk into that basement and you cut a body loose, it doesn’t end there. There’s a family there, they get to the scene and you have to prevent them, to physically restrain them, from going to see the body. You imagine being in their place — and I know what that’s like — it tears you apart. “People wonder why. I’m 41, it’s been almost 25 years that my brother died, and I still wonder why.” There were other tough assignments as well, Malec says. He often found himself having to restrain or arrest someone he knew, a person under the influence of drugs or alcohol who suddenly became violent. “It’s really sad. These were good people who just, all of a sudden, went sideways,” he says. “A few days later you’d see the person sober and they’d say, ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘It’s okay, let’s move on.’ ” Malec says the communities were once much more violent.
In the late ’90s, Malec saw tough situations with children “that put a lump in my throat.” Malec and his partner sometimes returned to the station from a call with five or six toddlers in tow. They’d change diapers while waiting for child protection services. As a parent, Malec says he’s gripped by the same desire to help all of Uashat’s children. “Every time I get up and go to work I do it for one reason, I do it for the kids, for the future.” ***
“Intergenerational trauma” is a psychological term coined in the 1980s to define what happens when an ethnic group is traumatized over an extended period of time.
Psychologist Normand D’Aragon, co-founder of the First Nations and Inuit Suicide Prevention Association of Quebec, lists such trauma: First colonialism; then, residential schools separated First Nations children from their communities. Families are still feeling the effects today, some grappling with disappearances of their loved ones and are unable to grieve or move on, says D’Aragon. People are carrying a world of hurt inside, he says, losses they could not heal, and some cope by turning to substance abuse, violence and suicide.
This reaction is not exclusive to First Nations, he cautions. Any group under similar “attack from the outside” would respond by internalizing the violence, he says. Part of the healing process, he says, is searching a family tree for where its aboriginal roots were severed. “Often, families touched by suicide are carrying a piece of something we need to remember and that we need to go back to,” D’Aragon says. “Maybe some are carrying more than their share. “It takes courage to open up about the sex abuse in the residential schools. “Sometimes, it’s a suicide (or an attempt) that will bring the family to a healing,” he says. “But you cannot force healing in a family that’s been adapting to unresolved trauma for generations — it’s become a powerful process in itself.” Among the best of antidotes for such deep wounds is storytelling, or intergenerational transmission of knowledge, he added. Lalonde, the psychologist who specialized in First Nations suicides, agrees.
Elders sharing their stories, activities and traditions with youth can be a powerful anti-suicide tool, he says, even among communities affected by typical disadvantages including poverty, high dropout rates and overcrowding. “Some communities are better able to resist colonization, and those that can, fare better in terms of youth health and suicide,” Lalonde says. “If you want to intervene, you don’t need a suicide prevention program parachuted in from Ottawa.”
One way forward is to turn to cultural practices. Vollant and Jourdain, for example, are part of a grassroots group tasked with reviving traditional ways of healing old wounds and restoring self-esteem. Sharing circles, sweat tents, drumming, shamanism and other practices that the Catholic Church once forbade are becoming sources of pride and healing.
Treatments such as Alcoholics Anonymous-type support groups have not helped, Jourdain says. “What really healed me was the sweat lodge. It’s like your soul is sick and you’re in so much pain you want to die. I scream in the sweat. Sometimes, it feels like I can cry all the tears in my body, all the pain and that’s when I really started to heal.” Jourdain also participates in grief therapy created seven years ago specifically for Uashat families.
It’s been immeasurably helpful, she says, but the very first session proved revelatory about the extent of the pain, much of it buried. Even the instructor was stunned at how many said they wanted to kill themselves, she recalls, and how people cried. “It was like opening a faucet.” Vollant built a sweat lodge in her back yard. In her bleakest moments, she evokes her beloved grandmother, walking among the pine trees with her songs and prayers. “It helps immensely,” Vollant says. “But it’s hard. The truth of it is that it is very hard anyway. We may feel better but there are some wounds that will never be erased.”
Suicide affects many people; there is no need to feel alone. If you feel distressed, please reach out. Someone is waiting to help you.
Suicide Action hotline: Across Quebec: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553); in Montreal: 514-723-4000
For 24-hour suicide prevention crisis centres across the country, go to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.