Young leaders from Nunavik bring their stories of hope, loss to youth forum

Victoria Tarqiapik went to Sherbrooke with a message: something needs to be done to fix the suicide crisis in Nunavik.

Tarqiapik was 15 when her best friend died by suicide, and 16 when another friend took her own life just two months later.

"My people need help and somebody needed to voice that," the now-24-year-old from Kuujjuaq said.

Tarqiapik attended the third annual Bishop's Forum this week at Bishop's University in Sherbrooke.

The conference gives 50 young people from across the province the chance to learn about civic engagement and leadership through group discussions and expert panels.

Tarqiapik and her peers from Nunavik — Leena Yeates, Aibillie Idlout and Nigel Adams — changed the course of the forum after the other participants were moved by their story and wanted to learn more about life in the North.

Conference organizers decided to rearrange the schedule and hold an impromptu session led by the group from Nunavik.

Adams started with a prayer and Tarqiapik demonstrated her throat singing, a skill she taught herself walking down the halls in her high school, practising and laughing with her friends.

"It was just always like that," she said. "You start with a prayer or throat singing."

Adams brought his feather and caribou antlers to the gathering.

The conference's 50 delegates sat in a big circle in the dining tent to listen to Tarqiapik, Adams, Idlout and Yeates tell their stories, of losing friends and family members before they turned 18, of depression, of trauma, of alcohol and drug abuse.

Many were moved to tears.

The four answered questions from the other participants about how Canadians can be allies to Indigenous people. They finished the emotional gathering with a group hug.  

"They said they learned a lot of stuff they never learned in school, so they very much appreciated it," Tarqiapik said.

Spencer Van Dyk/CBC

Yeates, who decided to take part in the forum in an effort to become more comfortable with public speaking, said the outpouring of support from forum participants was inspiring.

"It was actually really nice to get to speak up and let people know that we exist and we're here and we have a message," she said.  

"Our people have been suffering since first contact."

Since 2010, there have been more than 120 suicides in Nunavik communities, according to statistics obtained by the CBC. Tarqiapik suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I was dealing with it for a long time with no mental health help because the services we have in the North are just a band-aid on a wound that needs stitching," she said.

After pointed questions and discussions with the forum's federal election panel, the delegates received standing ovations from their peers.

"If they tried to dodge the question, " said Tarqiapik. "I made sure they answered my question."

"I just came, and I just listened; I didn't know what I was getting myself into."

This year was the second Bishop's Forum for Adams, a 26-year-old from Kangiqsujuaq, who attended the conference last year.

"I want to make people believe in hope," he said. "We are often stuck in our own thoughts, we are stuck in our own emotions."

"I really poured my heart out," he said of his speech to the federal election panel. "I don't want to hear another tragedy happen to our fellow Inuit."

Adams' brother was killed last year while he was in Sherbrooke attending the forum. Adams said the death motivated him to come back for another year and continue his work teaching young people about the North.

He said he never expected the support he's received from fellow participants.

"If it weren't for the Bishop's Forum I wouldn't be the person I am today," he said.   

Tarqiapik took time off school to deal with her trauma and mental health issues, and now works in a mine.

She said if mental health professionals were able to work a two-week rotation instead of the existing three months on, one month off schedule, they would coincide with mine shifts and councillors would be less likely to get burnt out themselves.

She said the conference has motivated her to keep pushing for access to mental health services in Nunavik, and she plans on returning to the forum next year as a coach.