Jerseys hung outside homes in northern Sask. First Nation to remember young Wollaston Lake hockey player

The video shows two rows of young men wearing hockey jerseys. It's a December night in northern Saskatchewan. The young men each hold a hockey stick in one hand, a candle in the other. 

They bang their sticks to the ground in unison. As a procession of vehicles begins to drive by, the young men lift their hockey sticks in the air.

They keep their sticks raised until as the last truck drives by. In the back of the truck, another group of men sit around a brown wooden casket.

"Welcome home brother," the young men say.

The video, posted this week to Facebook, shows the procession for Jerome Tssessaze, a 21-year-old hockey player from Wollaston Lake, Sask., 700 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon.

Tssessaze took his own life on Dec. 1, 2019. The same day, jerseys were placed outside more than two dozen houses in his home community.

Jamie Dzeylion is Tssessaze's sister. She said she wants her brother to be remembered for who he was — a talented athlete who had many friends across northern Saskatchewan.  

"Jerome was many things. He always had a smile, he always had something to say. [He was] a silly, jolly person." 

Submitted: Candy Robillard

Tssessaze was well-known in the community. He played volleyball and voyageur-raced — but perhaps most importantly, he played hockey.

Dzeylion says hockey is not just not a sport for Indigenous children and youth who live in northern Saskatchewan. 

"When you play hockey, it becomes a part of your life. You become a part of a family," she told CBC. 

Putting up the jerseys is the community's way of showing support, she says.

"When a player has lost his or her life, we put something up to support the family, and show them they aren't alone."

Jerome Joseph Tssessaze/Facebook

Tssessaze's death follows seven recent suicides in the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation, which is also in northern Saskatchewan. Because of those deaths, including the death of a 10-year-old girl, the First Nation has declared a state of crisis

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations posted pictures of the jerseys on social media, along with a question for the provincial and federal governments — "How many more children are we going to lose to suicide before we implement a Suicide Prevention Strategy?"

The federal government has promised it will commit to  funding more prevention strategies for First Nation communities. 

Saskatchewan's provincial auditor called on the province this week to improve mental health services in the north. 

"Right now it's kind of hard for us to tell them we have all these resources for them, that they can do things with their life — but being on the reserves - it's like, a routine thing," said Candy Robillard, who is from Black Lake and knew Jerome Tssessaze.

Submitted by Jamie Dzeylion

Robillard is in university, studying to become a social worker. She agreed with the provincial auditor that there is a need for more mental health supports in the north. 

"We need a better strategy on finding ways to prevent all this, and it just keeps happening."

Coming from the north, she said, she knows a lot of people who have been affected by suicide. 

"Even if this young child has everything [else], if they don't have the love, they don't have the support, they don't have sober housing, that person can still feel all this depression, anxiety, disconnection."

Candy Robillard/Facebook

She said as with Tssessaze, being part of a hockey team in the north is the sort of thing that is vital for the well-being of young people.

"That keeps them out of trouble, keeps them part of something, and you know, the winnings and travelling — it's like a winning feeling for them."

If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, help is available. For an emergency or crisis situation, call 911. You can also contact the Saskatchewan suicide prevention line toll-free, 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566, the Regina mobile crisis services suicide line at 306-525-5333 or Saskatoon mobile crisis line at 306-933-6200. You can also text CONNECT to 686868 and get immediate support from a crisis responder through the Crisis Text Line, powered by Kids Help Phone.