Two men are walking across Saskatchewan in response to the government's denial of a suicide prevention bill.
Tristen Durocher and Chris Merasty left Air Ronge on Thursday and they plan to walk 635 kilometres to the Saskatchewan legislature building in Regina. Durocher said he hopes the journey will take 20 days.
"We've had Elders joining us from La Ronge for portions of the walk," Durocher, 24, said. "We're listening to our bodies, we're going at the paces of those who come to show their support."
Durocher said on Saturday they were 21 kilometres north of Weyakwin, which is 145 kilometers north of Prince Albert.
Durocher said unanimous opposition by Saskatchewan Party MLAs in the legislature to a suicide prevention bill sparked his motivation to begin the walk.
"Several reserves across Saskatchewan have declared states of emergency in the past and nothing has been done," Durocher said. "They owe it to their residents of this province to provide mental health services and we are residents of this province, not some federal responsibility."
The bill put forward by Doyle Vermette, the NDP MLA for Cumberland, would have required the provincial government to recognize suicide as a health and safety priority. If the bill passed, the Saskatchewan government would have had to recognize suicide as a public health issue.
"[The bill] was made in consultation with northern communities, leaders, families that had lost loved ones and so I liked that it kind of came from our communities and wouldn't be some southern bureaucratic umbrella solution," Durocher said.
When it comes to addressing mental health problems in northern communities, Durocher said different communities have different needs.
"Some communities the problem is the gang violence, some communities there's a lot of drugs, some communities we have high rates of lateral violence," Durocher said. "So it can't be umbrella solutions for individual communities whose needs are different, and it needs to be community-based."
In May, the Saskatchewan government introduced the Pillars for Life suicide prevention strategy. It aims to improve specialized supports and training in the province as well as increasing research within the province regarding suicide.
"The Pillars [for] Life plan has been criticized by public health experts in Saskatchewan, Canada and beyond as being so vague it's basically meaningless," Durocher said. "Two weeks ago a mother came to me, she had just buried her daughter, she came to our opening ceremony weeks after the burial of her daughter and so did Pillars [for] Life do anything? No."
Durocher said he would like to see the provincial government come forward and take accountability for the inaction regarding suicide in the province.
"They see us a federal responsibility, although many of us live in their cities, although many of us go to their universities," Durocher said. "We are not a federal burden, we are citizens of this province and we demand every access to any mental health services."
The Saskatchewan Coroners Service reported 2,338 people have died by suicide from 2005 to 2019 in the province. Twenty-eight per cent of those people were Indigenous. According to Statistics Canada, in 2016 Indigenous people made up 16.3 per cent of the population in Saskatchewan.
Hunger strike once in Regina
Durocher said he began playing the fiddle when he was nine years old. Since then, he says he has played at so many funerals, he has lost count. Many of those funerals were for victims of suicide.
"As a child I've been in gymnasiums trying to play and console families over the sounds of the echoes of grieving mothers burying their firstborns," Durocher said.
"I've seen too many graves for my young life and I've seen too much indifference and political neutrality and kind of just this really disgusting attitude of not our kids not our problem and that is beyond horrifying."
Durocher said once they reach the lawn of the legislature building in Regina, he will walk to the front steps and play Amazing Grace on his fiddle. He said he will also begin a hunger strike.
"I'm starving in solidarity with our children who are — literally some of them are starving and figuratively they're starving for equality," Durocher said. "They're starving for justice, they're starving for belonging, they're starving for their culture and this is my way of saying I love you and I'm starving too."
Durocher said he will be fasting until the Saskatchewan government passes meaningful legislation.
"If they don't, I'm prepared to let my family bury me because this needs to be shown to Canada, to the world, just the depth of our money-minded politicians' indifference and heartlessness."