Indigenous youth suicide prevention initiative taken over by Stó:lō Nation

Kevin Griffin, Vancouver Sun

April 06, 2021

A suicide-prevention program that started out as an initiative led by experts turned into something quite different once it involved the Stó:lō Nation in the Fraser Valley.

In fact, the approach was so effective, the Stó:lō have taken it over and are now running it themselves.

Alanaise Goodwill doesn’t call what she has been involved with a “program.” She describes it as a project that expanded to include a web of relationships embedded in traditional Sto:lō language, culture, and land.

“We thought that if we can create a process for Stó:lō kids to not only go on these beautiful hikes in their traditional territory but also do it in a way where they increase their capacity to describe who they are and what their land is and what their responsibilities are, their well-being should go up,” said Goodwill, one of the few registered Indigenous psychologists in B.C.

“We should be preventing suicide.”

Goodwill was a co-investigator with the project funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health ResearchInstitute of Indigenous People’s Health, which ran from 2017 to 2019.

She is an assistant professor in education at Simon Fraser University, and said she is speaking about her own experience with the project, not on behalf of the Stó:lō.

Goodwill is a member of the Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation and was born and raised on Stó:lō territory. S’olh Temexw, or traditional Stó:lō territory, extends from Langley to Yale.

Goodwill estimated that of about 100 people a year who participated in the project, 20 to 30 were youths aged 12 to 18, and the remainder included some children as well as adults and elders.

The project included a number of land-based activities such as hiking and canoeing. One of the most popular was sleeping overnight in a smokehouse, a Stó:lō traditional spiritual structure.

“When they would go on these hikes, they would learn the sacred geography — the stories that are thousands of years old that go with the land,” Goodwill said.

Wherever possible, the traditional Sto:lō language of Halq’emeylem was used for names, places, and activities. Although Halq’emeylem is a critically endangered language with only four fluent speakers remaining, the Stó:lō are actively working to revive the language.

During the course of the project, there were no completed suicides by young people in the Stó:lō communities involved, Goodwill said.

In 2017, a federal report on Indigenous suicide found that when First Nations increase their control over social and economic services as well as retain use of their Indigenous language, it results in lower overall rates of suicide.

Breaking Point: The Suicide Crisis in Indigenous Communities pointed out that suicide rates are not uniform in Indigenous communities across the country. It said that in B.C., the “majority of First Nations have low or no incidence of suicide, while a small number of First Nations have very high rates of suicide.”

“We’re figuring out how to decolonize access to our own land and land-based teaching and (how to) put a set of practices in place in the contemporary context of Canada so that it becomes more accessible to Indigenous youth, Stó:lō youth specifically,” Goodwill said.

“Once we start to troubleshoot these barriers and create a process that’s sustainable, it’s not a program anymore. Now it’s something we used to do that used to happen quite easily before settler colonialism.”

Goodwill is talking about her work with the Sto:lo at the SFU’s President’s Faculty Lecture on Wednesday, April 7 at 6 p.m. Participants have to register for the lecture.

Factbox on Indigenous Youth Suicide

  • 30 per 100,000: Suicide rate among on-reserve First Nations males aged one to 19
  • 26 per 100,000: rate for females
  • 11: national rate
  • 17: percentage of First Nations living off-reserve between 18 and 25 reporting suicidal thoughts in their lifetime
  • 12: percentage of First Nations who have reported a close friend or family member who has committed suicide
  • 40: the number of times higher than the national average the suicide rate among Inuit males 15 to 29

– Breaking Point: The Suicide Crisis in Indigenous Communities

This was published by Vancouver Sun, on April 6, 2021.