The Anglican Church of Canada’s Indigenous ministries department will likely rename its suicide prevention program to reflect a focus on the affirmation of life.
The idea is being discussed in the wake of a March 27 talk on suicide prevention by Canon Martin Brokenleg, an Indigenous Anglican priest and psychologist. Brokenleg’s all-day talk was part of “Making Good Minds,” a three-day suicide prevention consultation session in Toronto hosted by the Indigenous ministries department and spurred by the suicides of two 12-year-old girls of the Wapekeka First Nation in northern Ontario last January.
Indigenous ministries co-ordinator Canon Ginny Doctor says she and other attendees came away from Brokenleg’s talk feeling greatly uplifted. They were encouraged by Brokenleg’s central message, which was that suicide prevention workers, instead of focusing on the problems facing at-risk people, should instead put their energy into the positive—into assuring them of their infinite worth, and helping them be all they can be, for example.
As a result, the suicide prevention program will probably be renamed “Affirming the Life of Our People,” or something similar, Doctor says.
Doctor says she’s also excited by the idea that the church has something unique to contribute to life-affirmation, in Indigenous communities and Canadian society as a whole, because it can speak to people about their ultimate purpose in life, which governments and other secular organizations by their nature can’t.
“I think perhaps there’s a possibility to do something really, really great here in terms of affirming life through faith and through spirituality,” Doctor says.
“Many of our young people, even some of our adults, lack that spirituality that could’ve been taken away by residential schools, or other trauma or whatever. They haven’t had that spiritual formation. And I see that as one of the things that the church really needs to address because other agencies really can’t."
One of the department’s biggest priorities in suicide prevention, she says, is to hire more people. Since 2013, the Rev. Nancy Bruyere has served as suicide prevention co-ordinator for the West and the Arctic; the Rev. Norm Casey, a member and former co-chair of the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples, handles the South and East. The two are assisted by a network of priests and lay volunteers. A plan to hire two more paid suicide prevention workers will likely be proposed next fall, Doctor says.
Because the caseload is so heavy, it often seems the church’s suicide prevention workers are more involved in crisis intervention than actual suicide prevention, she says. For the same reason, the church also needs to offer more support to these workers, many of whom are also trying to cope with unusually high rates of death from other causes, she adds. “It’s urgent. They don’t have time…I know some communities that go from funeral to funeral…It takes its toll on you.”
Meanwhile, the department has been able to hire two new youth workers. Their formal title will be “youth ministers,” and a big part of their role, Doctor says, will in effect be suicide prevention—“uplifting our youth, and affirming their lives in the church, and as Anglicans and as good people.”
Last July, at General Synod, Indigenous ministries released “Suicide in Our Land: A Pastoral Care Resource,” a booklet and accompanying DVD intended to support the efforts of suicide prevention workers. Training material will also be developed to accompany that resource, Doctor says.
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.
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