Running for their lives

By Katherine Palmer Gordon, June 2013

Kelly Paul’s Island marathon aims at awakening hope among First Nation youth.

In May 2012, the Cowichan Tribes, population 4,400, declared a local state of emergency in response to a horrifying spike in community suicides. Several people had died at their own hands in just the first five months of the year; 52 suicide alerts in total came into Cowichan’s tribal health centre over the same period. 

Sadly, Cowichan Tribes are far from being the only First Nation haunted by shocking suicide rates. It’s a statistic that plagues hundreds of Aboriginal communities across the country. Among Aboriginal youth, the rate shoots up to as much as six times the national average. “We are losing our most valuable resources—our children and our caregivers,” Cowichan Chief Harvey Alphonse lamented in 2012. 

The situation has not improved since. Suicides continue to rock First Nations communities throughout Canada, including Cowichan Tribes, which recently added a suicide prevention tip sheet prominently on its web site home page. 

But a young woman from Tsartlip First Nation in Central Saanich is determined to help change that—and she’s putting her money not only where her mouth is, but where her feet are. On May 17, Kelly Paul, 29, set off on a 535-kilometre marathon run from Port Hardy to Victoria to raise awareness of the issue and to bring a message of hope to the people she meets in First Nations communities along the way. 

“Suicide has been a taboo subject in our communities for too long,” says Paul. “People are afraid that talking about suicide will encourage others to do it too. But I think we have to talk about it. We have to create a dialogue in our communities about why it is happening and what we need to do to help our people survive. I’m hoping the marathon will help stimulate that discussion as well as bring the message that there is an alternative to suicide, and resources to help.”

Paul, whose brother committed suicide in 2009, is an educational assistant at Bayside Middle School in Brentwood Bay, an athlete, and a youth mentor with Power of Hope, an organization that promotes youth empowerment through the arts. Two years ago, after pondering what she could do to make a difference she decided to undertake the Heliset Halé marathon. 

In the Sencoten language “Heliset Halé” (pronounced “Hel-ee-set Hay-la”) means “Awaken the life within you.” Paul says: “The marathon seemed like a good way to tie what I can do as an athlete to my own personal experience of loss and bring the dialogue out into the open, in schools and in communities along the way. I want to let people know there is hope and we can do something to help prevent these deaths.” 

Long distance running veterans Bernice Smith, also from Tsartlip, and John Sampson, from Tsawout First Nation in Brentwood Bay, are accompanying Paul on the marathon. “It takes more than one person to do this,” says Paul. “It would be a heavy load to carry by myself.” For Smith, whose traditional name is He‘weth, running is more than just a sport. “It’s a connection to my spiritual self. It’s where I reflect and gain strength for the next challenge.” Smith adds: “My message is, ‘Honour your life—the Creator gave you your life for a reason; you have a purpose, and you are here to live it.” 

Sampson, who is 42, is candid about his own personal struggles: “I too have battled with suicide and with drug and alcohol addiction. I know how hard it can be to see the future.” Running is a healing place for him: “When I run, I know I am releasing my past and moving toward my future. I want to share that experience with community members who want to better their lives.” 

All three runners hope that the message they are bringing will help people, especially the youth, understand that there is a better choice than suicide. “Sometimes we get stuck and don’t know how to escape,” reflects Paul. “We want to bring more positive feelings to the communities, and new ideas and tools to help them get away from being stuck on that path.”

Bayside teacher Shauna White, a colleague of Paul’s, helped organize the event. “I had no idea what a big job it would be!” says White. “We had to drive the route several times to check for safety issues, look for appropriate rest stops, and time the length of each day’s run. We had to organize presentations at schools and community centres, and find accommodation every night for the whole team, which includes three support members as well as the three runners.” 

St John’s Ambulance is providing first aid support to the runners and Victoria’s Frontrunners store has provided helpful advice on everything from gear to long-distance running nutritional requirements. Need2, a suicide prevention agency, has provided brochures to leave behind in the communities the runners visit along the way. “We want the discussion to continue after we’ve moved on,” says Paul. “That’s vital.”

A huge part of that discussion, she adds, is how to bring back pride in cultural identity. In 2007, University of Victoria professor Chris Lalonde co-authored a paper directly connecting suicide rates to loss of cultural connection. Describing the negative impacts of colonization and societal prejudice against First Nations people, Lalonde described suicide as the “canary in the coalmine” of cultural deprivation: “Nowhere are the costs associated with failures to achieve any viable sense of self or cultural continuity more apparent than in the identity struggles of First Nations youth. The cumulative consequences are disillusionment, lassitude, self-effacement and suicide.”

Bonnie Joe, Tsawout’s recreation manager, also helped organize Heliset Halé. Joe understands intimately what Paul and Lalonde are talking about. The father of her two sons committed suicide in 2010: “It left a huge void in my boys’ lives,” she says. “I witnessed their anger and confusion and hurt, and saw other community members going through the same thing, over and over again. I decided I just didn’t want to see it happening anymore.”

Joe, who has been proactive in creating and running youth development programs for the Saanich communities, says helping the youth find and embrace their cultural identity is essential: “I’ve seen the intergenerational impact of the residential school system and how it has broken the sense of continuity in our families and communities. It is still having a huge impact today.” 

As Lalonde and many others point out, the loss of cultural self-awareness and pride that is the intergenerational legacy of colonization has been responsible for many of the negative statistics that trouble First Nations—not just suicide, but addictions, disproportionate numbers of Aboriginal people in prison, and low educational rates of success.

Lalonde and his colleagues researched 150 communities in BC, and discovered that language had more predictive power in anticipating suicide rates than any previously-known indicator. Even more striking: “Rates dropped to zero in communities in which at least half the members reported a conversational knowledge of their language.” By contrast, where there was little or no connection to language, the suicide rate was typically, as we already know, six times higher than the average rate in non-Aboriginal communities in Canada.

Bonnie Joe believes that things can be different. “We know we have the power to take our kids back,” she says. “We have the power to love them, embrace them, and tell them to be proud of who they are as both individuals and as First Nations people. We can challenge them to find the thing inside themselves that is special, and to gather their strength around it and move forward in life with it, whatever it is. That’s the whole message behind Heliset Halé—awakening the life within you. The options are endless. They just need to hear and believe that.” 

By the time you read this, the runners will be about half way home. All the careful planning and endless hours of organization are paying off—most of all for the runners, who believe that they are helping not only to change people’s lives, but to save them. 

“I truly believe our people, especially our youth, need to live and breathe our culture,” repeats Paul. “Being rooted in who they are, having that solid cultural foundation, will give them a sense of purpose each day, every day. That’s what awakens hope and gives people a reason to embrace life. That’s why we’re running—for the lives of our people.”

 

Heliset Halé will wind up on June 21 (National Aboriginal Day) at Tsartlip. Info and donations to help with the estimated $20,000 cost at www.helisethalemarathon.com.  

Everyone is invited to join the runners at any stage, on foot or by bicycle, and to celebrate both their arrival and National Aboriginal Day with the Saanich communities on June 21 at the Tribal School at 7449 Saanich Road in Brentwood Bay. 

Katherine Palmer Gordon is an award-winning author based on Gabriola Island. Her sixth book, We Are Born With the Songs Inside Us, is scheduled for release by Harbour Publishing this fall.