Keynote Address: Normand D'Aragon - Honouring my teachers from the north
Normand D'Aragon: Honouring My Teachers From The North
Co-founder and Director of First Nations and Inuit Suicide Prevention Association of Quebec
Sharing stories of hope and empowerment from a journey of learning and healing with families touched by suicide
My name is Norman D’Aragon, Psychologist, I’m mixed ancestry, adopted in the Inuit nation. When I was adopted by my grandmother, who had been a traditional midwife, and Inuits have been migrating for their survival, for their life, a beautiful way of life, so she would leave with the families who were expecting a child and spend the winter with them. Very powerful family, great lady, honoured in her nation a lot.
When she adopted me, accepted to adopt me, she said in my time that the challenge was to welcome them to life safely, but today it’s to keep them alive.
So this is the map of indigenous Quebec. Quebec is part of eastern Canada, mostly Francophone, so English is my second language as you might probably already know.
I can work all over as a Psychologist, but I don’t feel a Psychologist anymore. I mean with time we become more and more like a brother to everybody, and an activist also.
When I started to work in some communities, the situation was so tough that we decided to create an association for suicide prevention, and it’s become a frontline workers association. It was so isolation [sic], there was so much isolation that people were all isolated in their background. We’ve got eleven different nations in Quebec, twelve with Labrador, many languages, many cultures, so we really wanted to build up a voice that... where everybody would feel togetherness and strong together.
We’re second, after New Zealand, in terms of percentage of indigenous, and the indigenous population is growing and growing and growing, and young. Many, many youth in universities, more and more, it’s full of hope when we look at those numbers.
So a few pictures you saw at the tip of the map, a few pictures of those communities we visit. So this is from the plane before arriving – it’s a beautiful country, it’s a rocky country, very powerful. Here are the dogs on the ice, here’s our community, kids on a bike, winter, this one’s called Inuvik. This is our Hilton, our hotel. With a great view. Sometimes we see whales from the... our hotel.
Leaving for Beluga, or arriving from Beluga whaling, hunting, here’s a big mama polar bear, unfortunately that the warm warming up of... brings them more and more in communities, and they’re really dangerous, so they need to be killed. Big beautiful animals.
This is the workshop...many generations there. My colleagues, co-workers. Ancient picture, building up a huge canoe, waving at you. 1930s. This is the poster of our conference last year, always, always bring back culture as much as possible, and the theme was ‘From All Directions, Honouring Life Together’.
I’ll dive right away into the understanding of suicide that we came to develop. And if I’m trying to summarise this, we’re trying to find a way that would fit tradition, traditional beliefs about suicide. Traditional beliefs about suicide are always talking of a spirit, a person died traumatically, a spirit couldn’t go where it needed to go on the other side, so a spirit is confused, trying to come back. And in that tradition, that was the meaning for suicide. And then it could go down generations.
So after listening to many elders from many nations, I tried to build up, or to find in our [04:59] words, something that could... we could use also. There’s cultural diversity in our communities, and we don’t want to shock anybody with our meanings, with our, you know, here we are, the helpers, we know and go that way, but we want to be gently supporting people towards healing.
So we’ll talk about Leonard. You see Leonard? Leonard was forty-two years old at the time. He shot himself. He shot himself on the 24th of January, when he was 42 years old.
And after he got to the hospital for a few months we started work together, and I was really challenged because he... every time the 24th was coming back, he really wanted to die again. It was overwhelming. We had to bring him to the hospital... few months, and then he said ‘no’, he started to drink again, he said ‘no, I want to deal with this, I don’t like the doctors, I want to deal with it, and you and me only’. ‘Ok’. We started from there.
And Leonard had been raised mostly by his mum because the older siblings were older, and his father was frequently away from home, a logging family, so they were spending lots of time away from home. And so Leonard was raised so very closely to his mum, a very close bonding. And when I asked him ‘well what do you know about where your mum come, what happened to her’, you know, trying to find meaning, why would someone, you know, want to kill himself on the 24th.
He didn’t know much about his mum, or where he came from. He asked his mum – I encouraged him to ask, ask... ‘ask your mum’, you know, ‘we’re looking for some meaning here’, but the mum didn’t know much herself, or didn’t want to say much. He said when he grew up he tried to get his mum saying much, a little more, but when she would ask... he would ask, sorry, the mum was sort of crying, or distant, or, you know, so he learnt not to ask.
And then he went to talk to his Aunt Lili, his mum’s younger sister, and then he found out that his grandfather had died at forty-two years old on the 24th of January. And that his Aunt, the oldest, Annie, died a month after on the 24th, but it had always been a secret. And that happens in many, many situations. Suicide is very much about not knowing where you come from, you end up carrying something that happened in previous generations, it could not be healed then, and it starts travelling from a generation to another with, as you said, Minister, guilt, shame, but very often inequity of power.
So he asked his mum, because suddenly what he carried, what came through his mum, and that he was carrying strongly enough for him to want to be, you know, committing suicide on the same day, the same age, even the children were the same age. He had three sons, sixteen, fourteen and nine, and when his grandfather died the three daughters were sixteen, fourteen and nine. Amazing. He taught us... the title was ‘Honouring My Teachers from the North’... he taught us the power of the transmission of trauma, even when it’s secret, even when there’s no words something passes through and... that powerful.
So he went to his mum and he said to his mum ‘Mum, I know now. I know now that my grandfather died that date, he was driving dangerously’. So on that day when he died, he killed also someone else and died himself, drunk driving. So sort of a suicide, but murder at the same time. And again, a month after, the oldest child, the oldest daughter committed suicide too.
So that man shared what he know with his mum, said ‘Mum, I know now, but I want to know more because I want to know why my grandfather acted that way.’ So mum started to cry, like a baby he said, and then she shared that the... her father lost his mum when he was two years old. He was in his father’s arms. And they were walking... his mother was walking, and the mother was hit by a car, and he saw his mum dying, hit by a car. But the car didn’t stop, and his father realised that it was the village doctor, drunk, with someone else’s wife. So Leonard’s great-grandfather, I think, tried to fight for justice, it was like murder.
But the village priest told him to... as a good Christian you need to forgive and forget, and police didn’t take his side. So that loss could not be healed because there was no justice, right. I’m sure many of you are so familiar with this, but let’s talk about it today clearly. That wound couldn’t heal, we cannot heal when there is no social justice to support our grieving process. So then it travels, when it can’t be healed it travels. And this man who lost his mum at two years old, part of his heart remained two years old, and he asked his first daughter... he sort of put his mum that he lost in his first daughter, so he had a very special bond with her, and that was so powerful that she followed him, you know, just like the original events finding a way to come back and do the damage again.
And he kept saying that his own son, Leo, would die shortly after him, that he was sure that Leo would die, so the powerful repetition cycle was there. But we were so lucky, but because when he found out about where he came from, what he was carrying and why he wanted to commit suicide so, so bad, the suicide impulses stopped. Changed. Stopped drinking. It’s like he became his own mother’s healer instead of just carrying what came from her. Was it her mother’s fault? No way. Was it the grandfather’s fault? No way. It was inequity of power and the traumatic loss, tragic loss up there. He’d never heard about it.
So suicide today, for me I can’t help but see that recipe as being part of many, many suicide situations, and we don’t know because maybe something happened a long time ago.
We come to a community, and there was a big company there for decades. The community has been open wound for many, many years, so we were invited to go there. They had lost two kids from different families, they committed suicide a month apart. So we offered families, like we all do, ‘is it ok if we do that family tree thing’ and they wanted... the both families wanted to do it together. And quite amazingly, journeying through generations, we ended up realising that those two kids who had committed suicide were very much related to two of their great-grand-uncles who died together, murdered by the company of people who drowned them. This happened sixty, seventy years ago, the Inuit nation was totally powerless, no justice. And with time families were... there was murder like this, no justice, ends up... you know, you end up having suicide but also murder in the family. Many, many women who are raised by the company people. Many, many intra-familial rapes happen. And then you forget about how it started. You stigmatised... this community is so stigmatised. So you are victimised and re-victimised and re-victimised because no justice was possible in the beginning.
Another community, one family lost two brothers. So, again, we gathered the family, and then uncles, two generations ago, two uncles are missing, they’re dead but they don’t have... they don’t put the names, they don’t talk about it. So our role is to ask ‘what happened’. Grandmother looks around, never talked about it, the youth never knew about it, but in that community a plane will come, land on the lake. They were hunting young men in that community, kidnapping them, never seen again. Can’t say nothing. No justice. So those losses again, buried alive, or not buried. It’s like we bury them with the younger generation. Whose fault? So many parents are, you know, tortured by guilt, ‘what did I do wrong’.
So this is so important because if we’re imprisoned in guilt we won’t breathe, we’ll never let go. But the losses that I just talked about, families and communities are transforming this into something really powerful. The community I just mentioned where those two young guys were kidnapped a while ago and never seen again, there’s more and more families that went through that process. And the community is really building strength from it, and there’s more... like more help between families. So if there’s a risk somewhere, they will all go and take care of it, and there is a lot of empowerment happening in that community.
I was late in the office one night, and one young guy, he was surprised someone was there, knocks on the window ‘can I come in?’. It was late Fall, so the Bay was icy. And he said ‘I just saw you, but I was on my way to the Bay. I wanted to drown myself.’ I told him I’m so happy you knocked.
Well... and when we worked with the family, he almost became my son. When we worked with the family we ended up understanding that in that family there were two... two losses in alternate generations, but elders were there and we were able to realise that... I don’t know why I cry, but, sorry... that something happened before colonisation. There was a war between the Inuits and the Crees. A war involving, you know, spiritual warfare too.
So they had lost a mum and the two sons, drowning, and believing it was Inuit shaman who had killed their family members. But then, of course, missionaries came and tried to block that, you know, warfare and ask people not to talk about it. Good intention, but at the same time, like they buried alive whatever was left unresolved, and those families had been, you know, paying a heavy price.
And I work also on the Inuit side, and Inuits have highest rate almost in the world, especially Inuits from that area. And the great news is that this boy who became a man who’s a father, four beautiful children, fought for a documentary to be done on the war between those two nations, and it’s been happening, so it’s great news. And I heard from some ‘hey, my grandparents have started to open up, we gather for that movie’, so there is... children are vulnerable if they don’t know what... where it comes from, whatever they carry, and that makes them vulnerable. And sometimes to the point of taking their life.
So my question today, just share... after sharing these few examples, my question today would also be ‘How do we talk about suicide’, but ‘do we really listen to our youth, and do we know what they are talking about when they put their life at risk’.
Well have a very good day, thank you for your patience.