Suicide’s impact on First Nations communities on Vancouver Island and even around the country, was laid bare for witnesses to the conclusion of the Heliset Hale Relay on Pauquachin First Nation territory Sunday.
Few of the speakers who addressed a crowd of residents and guests did not have a family member or know someone in their community who has taken their own life. From elders within the WSANEC territory to young and middle aged people, they stood before the crowd and courageously told their stories.
It was a familiar theme to the runners of the relay, who started in Port Hardy on Sept. 17 and completed their 560 kilometer journey Sept. 25 in North Saanich.
People’s experience with suicide and their ability to overcome its stigma and emotional impact, is also the reason the Heliset Hale Relay was first started by Tsartlip First Nation member Kelly Paul in 2013.
Translated, Heliset Hale means “awaken life within” and Paul started the relay three years ago, partly in memory of her brother Issac, who took his own life when he was 17.
The relay, she said, and the support they received along the way in the many First Nations communities they visited, is an attempt to bring about change.
“It’s hope is to lift people up, to strengthen them,” Paul said Sunday. “People have to know that they are strong and we need to bring people together so (those in trouble) are not alone.”
During the relay, Paul said they heard many stories from people about their experience with suicide. A solution, she said, must come from within First Nations communities and needs to start with each individual.
“We are blessed to be spiritual people,” she said, “and we can be leaders here.”
Paul said the battles faced by people in stress or emotional turmoil can put them in positions where they feel like giving up.
“You need to know that you are loved more than you know. All of this community is here for you.”
Jim Charlie, from Tsartlip, joined the relay in Chemainus and spent three days running with Paul and her team. He said he ran in memory of his brother and sister.
“It was a powerful experience,” he said not long after being welcomed and hugged by members of the community at the relay’s end. “There were a lot of tears of joy.”
Charlie said his own father attended residential school and its legacy was one of bad memories and emotional impacts. He has found his way through those challenges, he said, and realized there is healing power within the community.
Chief Shane Gottfriedson of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, was at Pauquachin from Kamloops on Sunday and said the relay was a run for purpose.
“They ran with their spirits in their hand and with heavy hearts,” he said. “I know the struggles our people face on a daily basis … suicide had taken its toll, on families, a community and it takes a lot of support to work through it.”
He added while the word ‘reconciliation’ is very much on the minds of many people across the country, First Nations people “still have to look at reconciliation with ourselves.”
MLA Gary Holman said governments aren’t doing their best to help First Nations. MP Elizabeth May added the country is on a path of healing, but it won’t come without tears, pain and a new definition of how two nations can co-exist.
Paul said she hopes the Heliset Hale Relay on Vancouver Island can be run each year and attract additional runners. In 2013, there were three — Paul, Bernice Smith and John Sampson Jr.
This time around, she said there were eight — and like the message of the relay itself, Paul said many people contributing their hard work, lightens the load.
“Lighten the load around you,” she said.