Anglican Church hires two new suicide prevention workers

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Jeffery Stanley, left, will handle the church’s suicide prevention work in British Columbia, Yukon and Western Arctic; Yolanda Bird, right, will cover Alberta and Saskatchewan, and, if necessary, also Manitoba and northern Ontario. Photos: Contributed

The Anglican Church of Canada has hired two new suicide prevention workers as part of its Indigenous ministry.

Jeffery Stanley, a master of divinity student at the Vancouver School of Theology, began work June 25; Yolanda Bird, a former member of Council of General Synod (CoGS) with extensive experience working with children and youth, began July 3.

Each will be responsible for helping deliver existing suicide prevention programs in the dioceses in their areas, as well as helping develop new ones, said Indigenous ministries co-ordinator Canon Ginny Doctor. Their work will also include developing teams of volunteers in dioceses where the need for suicide prevention is especially high, she said.

“We’re looking forward to working with them and developing a strategy that will hopefully alleviate suicides in our communities,” Doctor said. “It’s a start. It’s not going to end everything really quick, but we’ve got to start somewhere.”

Stanley, who will be based in Gingolx, a Nisga’a community on the Pacific coast of British Columbia northeast of Prince Rupert, will cover British Columbia, Yukon and Western Arctic; Bird will be based in Montreal Lake First Nation, about 100 km north of Prince Albert, Sask., and will cover Alberta and Saskatchewan, and, if necessary, also Manitoba and northern Ontario.

The new hires are both full-time positions. Bird and Stanley will join the church’s current Indigenous suicide prevention worker the Rev. Norm Casey, whose position is half-time. The Rev. Nancy Bruyere, who was hired in 2013 as suicide prevention co-ordinator for Western Canada and the Arctic, has left the work, Doctor said.

Much of Stanley’s and Bird’s work, Doctor said, will involve helping Indigenous people heal from the historical trauma many suffer from, which, she says, has its ultimate origin in the Doctrine of Discovery, a concept that Europeans used to justify their colonization of the Americas.

The work will combine Anglican and Indigenous traditional spiritual teachings—which, Doctor says, aren’t in contradiction with one another—to restore a sense of purpose and identity, especially to young Indigenous people.

The two new positions were part of the national church’s 2018 budget, approved by CoGS in November 2017.

In a presentation to that session of CoGS, Fraser Lawton, bishop of the diocese of Athabasca and a member of General Synod’s financial management committee, said the two positions were badly needed because for many communities, especially in areas covered by Council of the North, suicide is “part of everyday life.”

Both Stanley and Bird have been personally affected by suicide; Stanley’s twin brother took his own life in 2003, and Bird’s best friend committed suicide in 2016.

Stanley’s background includes some schooling in suicide prevention and youth ministry, and his past work, he said, included significant work with children and youth—including teaching the Nisga’a language to children from kindergarten to Grade 7. He finds suicide prevention work both a blessing and a challenge to do, he said, because of the impact suicide has had on him personally.

Stanley provided the Anglican Journal with a short traditional biography, which reads, in part, “I am of Nisga’a, Tsimshian and Gitxsan Heritage with some Scottish ancestry. I am of the Lax Gibuu Clan (wolf) holding the name Gaseeks Biiyakhl, which can be interpreted as ‘a spring of water flowing from a glacier.’

“My chiefs’ names are Kwaxsuu—Stuart Doolan and Txaat Guu Gaaks—Floyde Stevens. My mother Esther is a matriarch in the family and her name is Sigidimnak Gaat’ax. My late father’s name is William Stanley and he held the name Ksgoogam Statx.”

Since the suicide of his brother, Stanley states in his biography, he has made it his goal to advocate for those facing the grief he, too, has experienced. The biography also mentions his feeling honoured to have been named as suicide prevention worker and his hopes of being ordained a priest after he finishes his studies.

Contacted by the Anglican Journal July 5, Bird said she was unavailable for an interview because she wanted to support the family of a young woman on her reserve who had committed suicide earlier that day.

Reached later, Bird said she was looking forward to working with frontline suicide-prevention workers in the different communities in her area, giving advice on how to look for the warning signs of suicide and helping those trying to cope with the suicided of a loved one.

Spirituality, she said, can be a powerful source of hope for facing the economic and other challenges many Indigenous people are up against.

“It’s the most important thing…because that’s where the strength comes from,” Bird said. “Being situated on a reserve can be really difficult for someone who is on social assistance, and the whole job situation on reserves—the lack of jobs—can definitely dampen your spirit a lot.”

Bird’s background includes working with children and youth for many years, some university study in psychology and a number of training sessions on suicide prevention—including a workshop hosted in March 2017 by the Anglican Church of Canada’s Indigenous ministries department, given by psychologist and priest Canon Martin Brokenleg.

Bird said she “pretty much grew up around the church”; she is the daughter of Adam Halkett, Anglican Indigenous bishop of Missinippi. She served on CoGS from 2001-2004, and was involved with the Anglican Indigenous Network, which brings together Indigenous people from across the worldwide Anglican Communion, for about nine years.

According to the Centre for Suicide Prevention, a branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, suicide and self-inflicted harm are the most common causes of death for First Nations youth and adults aged up to 44 years. Canada’s Inuit youth have among the highest suicide rates in the world, and are 11 times the national average.

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Tali Folkins
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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