We created a support network to fight mental illness in the Indigenous community

On the evening of Jan. 1, 2018, I received a phone call that changed my life forever. My 20-year-old niece, Cyrah, had taken her life. I remember the immense sadness that filled my body and the feeling of being completely heartbroken. Up until then, I had never experienced a loss that shook me like that. I raced to be with my husband, Matt, and we spent that evening sitting in silence, crying, not knowing what to do with ourselves.

Unfortunately for Matt, this is not the first loss that his family has experienced. At the age of four, Matt lost his father to suicide and at age six, his uncle. He has experienced far too many tragic losses and spent much of his life with questions unanswered.

Losing Cyrah has been the hardest loss for him because he spent much of her life with her. She often went to his hockey games with homemade signs to cheer on her uncle so proudly. The first time I met Cyrah, it was her 10th birthday and we gathered at her grandma’s house for a celebration. I remember the effort that Matt put into buying her a gift that year, and the words he used to express how important she was to him.

The little girl that I met was full of life, full of love, full of laughter and so much happiness. I can still hear her excitement in my head as she opened her presents that day.

Losing someone to suicide presents an unimaginable pain within yourself that is hard to describe unless you have lived it. As I write this story, I can’t help but feel the lump in my throat, and the tears filling my eyes with sadness that has never quite left. Too many of us in the Indigenous community have felt this feeling, too many of us have laid our youth to rest and too many of us still ask ourselves why?

The high number of suicides across the Indigenous community left both Matt and me feeling heartbroken and determined to try our best to support people who are struggling, and people who have experienced a similar loss.

Last spring, we created a group called Biidaaban. Biidaaban is an Anishinaabe word that translates to “the point at which the light touches the earth at the break of dawn.” This word symbolizes hope, new beginnings and the importance of the light returning each day after darkness. We chose this word specifically because of the symbolic meaning. We wanted others to know that we too have experienced darkness, but if you just hang on a little longer the light will always return.

Biidaaban is a group that offers Indigenous people a safe space to stay connected, and to share encouragement and kindness with each other. We began by creating a Facebook page and Instagram account that shares positive messaging, pictures and videos.

The virtual speaker series was created to foster dialogue and help people feel less alone. (Submitted by Melissa Robinson)

Last year, we applied for our first successful grant — Biidaaban was awarded funding from the Canadian Roots Creation Fund. We used the funds to host a virtual series called Let’s Visit. It was a series of conversations that Matt and I hosted; we invited viewers and special guests to join us to engage in meaningful dialogue that we hoped would leave people with a “feel-good feeling.” Some of our guests included Adrian Sutherland, frontman of the band Midnight Shine, former hockey player Jordin Tootoo and actress/producer Jennifer Podemski.

The goal of Let’s Visit was to offer entertainment to viewers, but also to present an opportunity for them to share and listen in a safe space. The first series was a hit, and we were awarded additional funding so we hosted a second series this fall that focused on celebrating inspiring Kweok (the Anishinaabe word for women).

Sharing and staying connected through the pandemic is a struggle, so Matt and I believed that by assisting in creating a safe space for people to join us, we would contribute something positive to what has proven to be a difficult time for everyone.

The success of this project has inspired us to continue pushing forward. Although the Let’s Visit series has ended, we have continued posting contests and virtual workshops through the Biidaaban Facebook page. During the holiday season we did some fundraising and we were able to successfully offer financial assistance to some local families and Elders. We held a “Feel Good Contest” where we shared some of the family activities we had been doing over the holidays and encouraged followers to share photos of what they had been doing to keep busy.

Biidaaban started off a small project for Matt and me, and over the course of the year it has now become a family project with our son joining in and fundraising with hopes of creating his own event for youth. We are by no means experts in this area, but we are two people who can relate to what others may be feeling — two people who care about creating positive, impactful change for Indigenous youth.

CBC Quebec welcomes your pitches for point-of-view essays. Please email povquebec@cbc.ca for details.

This story is part of a special CBC Quebec projectOut of the Dark: Real Talk on Mental Health. If you are having a hard time coping,here are some resources that could help.

If you are in crisis or know someone who is, here is where to get help:

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (Phone) | 45645 (Text, 4 p.m. to midnight ET only)crisisservicescanada.ca
  • In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)
  • Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (Phone), Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca
  • Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention:Find a 24-hour crisis centre

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