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'This Walk Is for Life'

To make strides against aboriginal youth suicide, they trekked across Canada.

Andy Prest 19 Jun 2006TheTyee.ca

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Standing, from left: Louis Joseph, Dernell Krutko, Chasity Meuse, Ed Melerum, Reno Trimble, Tyler Joseph; sitting: Vincent Watts and Tom Watts holding son Isaiah Knott. Photo by Christopher Grabowski.

Tyler Joseph is drained.

Three months ago he and the other members of the Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Walk were in Sydney, Nova Scotia. On March 14 they started walking. They have not stopped since.

Blisters have formed and reformed on both of Tyler's feet. Pain in his back comes and goes. His weight has gone down, then up, then down.

At times the rain fell from all angles. Other times the sun burnt his skin. Mosquitoes and semi trucks swarmed and pestered.

Four time zones and three pairs of shoes later, Tyler slumps in a chair in the Mission Indian Friendship Centre. His abused feet hang down below baggy shorts. His eyes stare out at nothing under a straight-brimmed ball cap tilted slightly to the side. But it's not the walking that has drained Tyler. It's the stopping.

That's what happens when at every place you go you must talk about your life and why you are still living it; when at every stop people tell you about their dead friends and family; when every day you describe what it was like to discover your cousin's body, dead. "It rips you up inside," Tyler says. That's draining.

Home

Tyler Joseph is going home. The walkers are slated to make an appearance at the First Nations Summit meeting at the Squamish Recreation Centre in North Vancouver. They will give updates on their progress, hit delegates up for funds, and meet the press.

Tyler grew up in North Vancouver. He's not sure if he's glad to be back. The city lifestyle was one of the main reasons he started walking in the first place.

"Joining the walk was a way to get away from everything. Drugs, alcohol, waking up in jail," the 21-year-old says. Spending five hours a day crossing the country gave Tyler lots of time to think about the end of the road.

"I wasn't looking forward to ending. It's hard going back to where I came from with the drugs and alcohol," he says. "Now that we are getting close to home, I didn't want to go home because this journey has been such an eye-opener." Tyler and the other walkers hope that many people's eyes were opened on this journey.

The Walk

2006 is the fourth and final year for the Youth Suicide Prevention Walk. Every year from 2003 to 2005 a group of walkers travelled from Nanaimo to Ottawa. Over that time they visited more than 50 reserves, speaking at schools, community meeting places and detention centres. They passed their message on to more than 50 chiefs and made appearances in newspapers and on radio and television broadcasts. This year they completed the circle by coming back, east to west.

The walkers' website lists several goals, including the establishment of a youth crisis treatment centre and the creation of a national aboriginal, Inuit and youth suicide prevention day. They also make requests of the government, including a simple demand that the high aboriginal suicide rate be acknowledged and that funding for suicide prevention be increased. Hinting at the Liberal-brokered Kelowna Accord -- an agreement which was intended to close the gap between aboriginals and non-aboriginals -- the walkers write: "We hope the new government will hear our voices, and honour commitments made to us in 2005."

The message

As the Friendship Centre fills up, the government seems to be the furthest thing from the walkers' minds. Drums beat rhythmically and songs echo out into the street as Tyler and his friends prepare to talk. A group of four teenage girls enter the room and line up wooden chairs opposite the adults and kids playing the drums.

The presentation starts slow. The group's DVD, their big opener, skips and jumps and grinds to a halt 30 seconds in. One of the teenage girls quietly smirks and the others giggle and shush. This is no high-tech show or Tony Robbins motivational speech. One by one the walkers simply stand and talk.

Tyler is one of the first to go. He reads from the group's pamphlet as the kids in the room shuffle in their seats. Tyler puts the pamphlet down and begins speaking. He is no longer drained. The kids begin to listen.

"We don't talk about our feelings very much," he says. "We're always taking care of someone else or solving someone else's problems. I was raised not to cry. But now I'll just cry sometimes. Cry when I'm sad or cry when I'm happy. It's that form of release, letting go. Express your feelings. Don't hold it in."

These are not the words many of the people in the room were expecting to hear from this tattooed young man. The next walker speaks. She tells the room what it was like seeing her beautiful young cousin -- a girl the same age as her own little siblings -- lying in a coffin.

The last walker stands, his head nearly grazing the ceiling. "I'm on this walk because I'm a survivor of suicide. I've tried to take my life. I started when I was eight years old." No one is giggling now.

Suicide statistics

As soon as the presentation is over, the teenage girls make for the door. There is no way of knowing whether the message sunk in. At least the walkers know they have tried. It is a message that is "hugely important," says Jolene Anderson, a manager at the Friendship Centre. "I just wish my sons were here to listen to them talk. I think they're great inspirations for everybody."

Suicide should not be a taboo subject, Anderson says. "It's not being talked about enough. Especially for aboriginal people, I don't think the issue is out there enough."

Out there or not, it is an issue. According to the Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre of British Columbia, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 24. One out of every 10 students will have attempted suicide by the end of high school. The aboriginal youth suicide rate is five to six times higher than the rate for non-aboriginal youth. The rate is even higher in the Nunavut region.

Tyler hates those numbers. "It's hard to understand," he says. "You'd rather walk as far as you can to bring those people back. You'd do anything." Ultimately it was hearing those suicide statistics that drove him to leave his life and join the walk.

End of the road

For Tyler and the rest of the walkers, the end of the road is near. On Saturday they reached Vancouver Island. The walk will end on June 21 in front of the legislature buildings in Victoria. Then it is back to life. Tyler thinks he is ready to start fresh in his old territory.

"I'm looking forward to going home now, not to drink and do drugs," he says. The fear of his old life and the hope for a new life are both very real. "This time I'll be more aware and take care of myself."

Tyler grew up off the reserve and he drifted away from his family and his culture. That's all going to change now, he says. "I'm looking forward to going home in that kind of way...Stay in touch with my family, learn more about my culture, and help out my community any way I can."

Tyler and the walkers travelled a long road. He's glad he did.

"I am so proud that I've done it. It's one time in my life where I've been acknowledged that I'm in the right place at the right time. I've made the right decision." Tyler hopes he and the people he met in the last three months continue to make the right decisions.

"Good luck with your guys' walk through life," he tells the crowd. "This walk is for life."

Andy Prest is a Vancouver journalist.

Related Tyee stories: Premier Gordon Campbell decried 'a century of betrayal' of First Nations; Kendyl Salcito wrote about how the internet is changing life in aboriginal villages; and Elaine Briere chronicled in words and pictures the resurgence of the 'Canoe Nations' in B.C.

Distress Resources and Contact Information

Visit Crisis Intervention & Suicide Prevention Centre of BC for a list of phone numbers for distress lines in cities and towns around BC as well as for specific languages and communities.

Other information and help is available from 1-800-SUICIDE and the web-based hotline for youth at Youth in BC.

And Crisis Centre BC has a page of links to other organizations.  [Tyee]

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