‘It affects everybody’: Sask. bishops sign interfaith statement on suicide prevention

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‘It affects everybody’: Sask. bishops sign interfaith statement on suicide prevention
Suicide prevention must be an "abiding commitment" for Anglicans, Bishop Michael Hawkins says. Image: S. Hermann & F. Richter via Pixabay

Note: This article discusses suicide rates in Canada.

Four Anglican bishops have joined religious leaders across Saskatchewan in signing an interfaith statement that calls for greater efforts to prevent suicide.

Bishops Michael Hawkins, Adam Halkett, Chris Harper and Rob Hardwick—representing the diocese of Saskatchewan, the area mission of Missinipi and the dioceses of Saskatoon and Qu’Appelle, respectively—all endorsed the statement. Representatives of other denominations and faiths who signed the statement included Roman Catholics, Ukrainian Catholics, Presbyterians, Unitarians, the United Church of Canada, Jews, Muslims and Bahá’ís.

The statement calls on “faith communities, the Government of Saskatchewan and all sectors of society to work together to establish a comprehensive and effective suicide prevention strategy.” Among possible measures it suggests are the creation of laws and programs that address common risk factors for suicide; education of people on suicide risk; and building local capacity to address the needs of youth, young adults and Indigenous people.

Faith leaders released the statement on Sept. 10, World Suicide Prevention Day. It was inspired in large measure by the Walking With Our Angels vigil by Tristen Durocher, who started the vigil after the Saskatchewan legislature voted down an opposition member’s bill that would have recognized suicide as a public health issue and prioritized suicide prevention.

A young Métis fiddle player from La Ronge, Durocher walked 635 km to Regina to draw attention to the need for suicide prevention. In the city’s Wascana Park, he set up a teepee and engaged in a ceremonial fast over 44 days.

Hawkins described Durocher as a friend of several parishioners in his diocese and noted that he has performed music at the cathedral on multiple occasions. During his walk to Regina, the diocese supported him with some money for needs like food and fuel as he made the journey and others joined him.

The bishop called Durocher’s walk and vigil “probably the most significant [effort for raising] awareness … that I’d ever seen, in this province at least, about the terrifying reality and numbers and heartbreak around suicide in the north of the province.”

The interfaith statement notes that 10 people on average die of suicide each day in Canada, with approximately 144 suicides per year in Saskatchewan alone. Suicide is the leading cause of death in northern Saskatchewan for people between the ages of 10 and 49.

Higher rates of suicide are prevalent among First Nations, Métis and Inuit, especially youth. Young people that identify as LGBTQ+ are also especially prone to suicidal thoughts and behaviour.

“It affects everybody,” Halkett said of suicide in northern communities. The Missinipi bishop linked higher suicide rates among Indigenous people and other social ills with continuing intergenerational trauma caused by the residential school system.

“Our youth are kind of lost because of the residential school impacts, and the drugs, the gangs, domestic violence [with] young couples and of course the war with meth coming into our communities,” Halkett said.

“It’s a real tough battle for all…. The way I look at it, these are the impacts we’re seeing now because of the residential schools—not blaming that [entirely], but it’s part of what’s happening.”

The diocese of Saskatchewan has worked to prevent suicide in numerous ways. Bishop Hawkins recently spoke at a public event outside Prince Albert city hall to support Durocher’s vigil. St. Alban’s Cathedral also hosted its second annual vigil on Sept. 10, From Darkness to Light, in which people affected by suicide were able to express grief and remembrance.

Hawkins described From Darkness to Light as a “very quiet, understated ecumenical service” where participants lit candles in memory of loved ones they had lost to suicide, as well as those they knew who were currently at risk of taking their own lives. Eighty people attended last year’s vigil. Though attendance this year was reduced due to COVID-19, Hawkins said an estimated 50 people came out to St. Alban’s for the event.

Partnering with other community organizations such as the Prince Albert Grand Council, the diocese has co-sponsored programs to support Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training. It has also led several “suicide walks,” which involve walking around communities in prayer and, in some cases, going into the location where someone had taken their own life, praying there with the person’s family and friends.

“One of the things that frustrates me is that occasionally politicians will show and express that they’re concerned about this issue, but that is not the level of alarm that the rate of suicide in Canada’s north deserves or needs,” Hawkins says.

“The language [of] ‘concern’ is actually hurtful, because it appears to minimize the terrible pain that the reality of suicide is in so many of our communities and in families and among young people. ‘Concern’ is not an adequate response to this epidemic in the north.”

Along with several other faith leaders, Hawkins and Halkett took part in a meeting on Sept. 14 with Deputy Premier Gordan Wyant and Minister Responsible for Rural and Remote Health Warren Kaeding on the subject of suicide prevention. Hawkins said the Anglican bishops were “blessed” to participate in this conversation, which he called “frank and difficult at times.”

Hawkins has high praise for Cumberland MLA Doyle Vermette, who put forward the private member’s bill on suicide prevention that was rejected by the legislature. But during the discussion with ministers he expressed concerns about Pillars for Life, the Saskatchewan government’s current plan on suicide prevention, citing a lack of consultation with communities.

Archbishop Donald Bolen of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Regina, who also signed the interfaith statement on suicide prevention, drew inspiration from Durocher’s vigil. He believes it is “both appropriate and good [for faith leaders] to join our voices together” to reduce suicide.

“I think it is always good when faith communities, instead of simply speaking out on our own, can act together,” Bolen said.

“In an increasingly pluralist society, we are also much better heard when we act together. Joining our voices in asking the government to do more in terms of suicide prevention is one step, but in each of our communities, [taking note especially of] those in the north, we need to prayerfully discern how we can accompany young people and bring the joy of the Gospel to them, to do what we can to sow seeds of hope, meaning and purpose.”

Hawkins says that the Anglican commitment to suicide prevention—which also includes ongoing work by the national church, the Council of the North and Indigenous Ministries—“needs to be for the long haul. Like the commitment to reconciliation, it needs to be an abiding commitment that needs to be renewed.”

“The causes of suicide, and of higher suicide especially in certain areas and populations of the country, are related to some of our deepest brokenness and injustices in the country,” Hawkins added. “It will take a long journey together to address these and to work for healing and towards hope and new life.”

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Matt Gardner
Matt Gardner is a staff writer for the <em>Anglican Journal</em>. Most recently, Gardner worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Gardner has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He will continue to support corporate communications efforts during his time at the <em>Journal</em>.

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