Efforts to address the suicide crisis in Indigenous communities have received a major boost in the form of a $200,000 donation, gifted by an Ottawa-based Anglican known for her support of charitable causes.
Joan, who asked that her last name not be printed, is a long-time parishioner at All Saints Anglican Church Westboro, and a supporter of local programs such as Cornerstone Housing for Women and the youth program at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. For the last decade Joan—who is more than 100 years old—has made annual donations to Anglican ministries, through gifts of Bank of Nova Scotia shares accumulated through her life.
Speaking from her retirement home in Ottawa, where she was recovering after suffering a recent fall down a flight of stairs, Joan summarized the reason behind her six-figure donation: “I had the money to spare, and I wanted to share it with people who were most in need.”
Her donation represents a “real shot in the arm” to the spiritual crisis affecting Indigenous communities, Indigenous ministries coordinator Canon Ginny Doctor said. Starting this year, the money will be used to fund programs to help prevent suicide—the foremost being a music program that has proved highly successful through camps in communities such as Six Nations of the Grand River and Whitehorse.
With the additional resources provided by Joan’s donation, Indigenous ministries plans to bring music instruction to remote communities without access to such programs, such as Kingfisher Lake in the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh. Running a week-long music camp typically costs between $30,000 and $50,000, which covers the cost of musical instruments, instructors, and allowing the community to host.
Music played a noteworthy role in Joan’s own life. Born in London, England, she often sang in school choirs as a young woman, and later church choirs. During the Second World War, Joan married her husband George, a Canadian soldier and mechanical engineer. The couple eventually moved back to Canada and raised a family.
Joan has long had an interest in Canada’s northern communities. In her youth, she read books such as Jack London’s White Fang and was fascinated by accounts of Inuit and First Nations—Indigenous peoples for whom, she noted, “Canada [had] destroyed their way of living, to a large extent,” by taking their land.
Joan first heard of the Anglican Church music programs through her friend the Rev. Richard Vroom, retired gift planning officer for the diocese of Ottawa.
“My number one interest was to help [prevent] the young people from killing [themselves], giving them an interest in living…I did read that they had started this program of bands and so on for music programs, which apparently had been very successful,” Joan said. “The numbers had increased tremendously, and that had had a strong influence on reducing the number of young people who did kill themselves.”
The intergenerational trauma of colonization and the residential school system are a major factor driving high rates of suicide in Indigenous communities.
By giving Indigenous youth a chance to learn an instrument and reclaim their cultures, such as by singing songs in their traditional languages, music camps can help empower young people and reduce the risk of depression and suicide.
“When [people] say, ‘Oh yeah, I can sing that song in Cree’ […] just a simple song will really empower those people,” Doctor said, adding, “They’ll hear it and say, ‘Wow, I can do this, and I’m going to do more.’”
Besides funding music camps and instruction, part of Joan’s donation will be put aside in an endowment, with the hope that more people will donate and make programs such as the music camps sustainable in the long run.
Doctor praised Joan as “the epitome of what a Christian woman should be like,” while Resources for Mission director Deborah Barretto expressed hope that Joan’s donation would inspire others across the country to support programs such as suicide prevention.
“We definitely need more donors like [Joan], because a really valuable program like the music program for Indigenous Ministries now gets to expand across the country and in northern communities,” Barretto said. “That’s really exciting for us.”