Lac La Ronge band councillor says pandemic worsening suicide crisis in north

"Come and meet with us, come onto our reserves, come into our communities. Don't be scared to come on the rez, we invite you, come and see it for yourself."

Alec Salloum 3 minute read December 6, 2021

Devin Bernatchez, left, band councillor at Sucker River, speaks with Everett Hindley, minister of mental health and addictions, seniors and rural and remote health, at the Legislative Building on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021 in Regina. TROY FLEECE / Regina Leader-Post

Devin Bernatchez made the six-hour drive south to Regina from Sucker River to try and get answers, answers he can’t seem to find in his northern Saskatchewan community.

Bernatchez, a band councillor from the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, has witnessed the suicide crisis in the province’s north worsen during the pandemic. On Monday he asked that Everett Hindley, the minister responsible for mental health and addiction, travel to his First Nation and see firsthand what the pandemic has done to his community.

Hindley accepted the offer.

“During this pandemic, the suicides have increased, addictions have increased, and we see it in our communities,” said Bernatchez. During the pandemic, he said the Lac La Ronge Indian Band partnered with the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) to help roll out vaccines to community members. Now, he wants to see a similar partnership, when it comes to mental health and a plan to address suicides in the north.

“Come and meet with us, come onto our reserves, come into our communities. Don’t be scared to come on the rez, we invite you, come and see it for yourself,” he said.

Regarding the province’s suicide prevention plan called the Pillars of Life, Bernatchez said he’s not familiar with it, or what it proposes to do regarding suicides.

Hindley said that there’s lots of work left to be done regarding suicides but said slowly, there is progress being made. He touted an additional $1 million for the Pillars of Life program and speculated that there could be some additional spending coming in the next budget while freely admitting that more has to be done.

“These are challenges faced by governments across the country right now and we’re doing our best to make sure we continue to work with our community partners so we can address these challenges head on,” he said.

Bernatchez is a hockey coach, teaches golfing and tries to keep people active in the community to try and offer alternatives to drugs and alcohol. He said from his own experience that it helps if there are things for people to do. With fewer jobs, fewer opportunities to go to school and take part in sports because of the pandemic, there was a compounding impact from the existing mental health and addiction crisis and the pandemic.

Not wanting to speak on the matter, Bernatchez mentioned that he had lost his cousin five weeks ago.

“He’s truly a leader,” said Doyle Vermette of Bernatchez, Opposition critic for mental health and addictions.

During question period in the Saskatchewan legislature, Vermette asked what the government would do to address the suicide crisis in rural and remote Saskatchewan.

Hindley said the matter was “of the utmost significance” to his government, thanking Vermette for his own work and advocacy on the issue.

“We know there are other areas that we need to get to,” said Hindley.

“We’ve had too many suicides, we’ve had too many people dealing with mental health and addictions in the north, but it’s throughout the whole province,” said Vermette. “We have a crisis going on.”

Bernatchez hopes that Hindley can make it up to Sucker River soon. He says as a band councillor he gets messages weekly from people in crisis.

He said he wants training to better help his community.

“We need supports,” he said. “When it comes to the reserves, there’s a lot of people that don’t have a lot of hope. I see it.”

alsalloum@postmedia.com

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