Stó:lō people fish with traditional dipnets on the Fraser River in the early 20th century. Charles Macmunn/Wikipedia Commons

Connection to land is key to ending high suicide rates says UFV expert

Professor responds to high rate of First Nations suicides reported by Fraser Health

Connection to land, culture and community is key to improving mental health for Indigenous youth, says University of Fraser Valley (UFV) associate professor Dr. Wenona Hall.

Hall is a professor of Indigenous studies and a member of the Stó:lo Nation. She says her initial reaction to the recently released report on youth and youth adult injury reports from First Nations Health Authority and B.C. Coroners Service is an emotional one.

“I am Stó:lo, my family is impacted,” she says. “I don’t think you’ll find a single Stó:lo family that isn’t impacted either directly or indirectly because we’re all related and interconnected.

“These statistics represent lives,” she adds. “[This] points to the severity of the situation and the fact that it really is, in my opinion, a crisis and everybody should be on board.”

In the report, Fraser Health displays a startling gap in the rate of First Nations suicides for the region, with 81.3 for every seven non-first nation suicides – the largest gap by a longshot compared to reports from the Interior, Island, Northern and Vancouver Coastal health authorities.

READ: Indigenous youth deaths preventable, B.C. coroner says

Hall says connection to land, community and culture are vital for mental health in Indigenous youth. She says three factors need to be addressed to fix the complex issue illustrated by the report: land rights for Indigenous peoples; abolishment of the Indian Act, which dictates land-use permits and land management; and the upholding of laws from government and courts or a federally adopted “decolonizing policy.”

“I think one of the things that will drastically reduce these statistics for the government and the courts is if we have political and legal recognition of our title to our land – all our land, not just these pitiful little postage stamp reserves,” Hall says.

“All of this land belongs to the Stó:lo people and that needs to be politically and legally recognized,” she adds. “And then we, and especially our kids, need unrestricted access to that land.”

A report from the House of Commons on the Standing Committee of Indigenous and Northern Affairs reads that “a proper understanding of the conditions which cause mental distress and suicide is essential in preventing suicide from taking place …”

One of those conditions, according to Hall, is the legal restrictions put on fishing and general access to the land.

“Our land is our number one resource, and our kids don’t have access to the land,” she says. “And that’s where our health and well being is grounded – in our ability to go into the mountains, in our ability to get onto the rivers and the lakes and the streams. The ability to hunt, the ability to fish. That is all mental health and well-being to us.

READ: Chilliwack First Nations bands reject Kinder Morgan cash

“The settler society doesn’t really have a connection to culture, so they have a hard time understanding what we mean by that word. Like what our drum means to us, what our song means to us. We can’t have our culture without our land.”

But the Stó:lo people, Hall says, are strong and resilient.

“We have survived here … for thousands and thousands of years. We have survived earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, famines, floods, colonialism – you name it.

“I don’t know too many people that would be able to survive this generational trauma of residential schools and the Indian Act and the [entire] system.”

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