Whenever Gloria Stevens drives across the Hagwilget Canyon Bridge, she focuses on its beauty, not its deadly allure.
Suspended 80 metres above the fast-flowing Bulkley River, carved out of the Roche de Boule mountain range in northwestern British Columbia’s Gitxsan territory, the single-lane structure is a spectacular sight.
But as Stevens knows well, the bridge has exerted a siren-like pull for unhappy Gitxsan youth who live in its shadow. On too many occasions, Stevens, a Gitxsan elder from Kispiox, B.C., has been called to the bridge to talk a young person out of suicide.
On the north side of the bridge lie the communities of Hazelton, Kispiox, Glen Vowell and Gitanmaax. On the south side, New Hazelton, South Hazelton and the Yellowhead Highway running between Prince Rupert and Prince George. It’s an area of surpassing physical beauty, but the beauty masks one of the highest rates of family poverty in British Columbia and all of Canada.
Crossing the bridge is the only way for Stevens to get to New Hazelton and the highway beyond. So as much as she tries to focus on the bridge’s beauty, whenever she drives its 140-metre length, she also fights her dread about who she will see as she crosses.
“There are times that when I get there, I always wonder, what’s going to happen today? Will there be somebody there? And when I cross it and there’s no one there, I always say, ‘Thank you. Thank you, Jesus.’”
One hot July day in 2009, it was 18-year-old Shaun Webber on the bridge.
Webber’s was one of hundreds of suicide attempts that RCMP, doctors, nurses and mental health counsellors in the area of B.C. known as “the Hazeltons” have responded to since the mid-2000s. In 2007 alone, local doctors reported 111 attempts and eight deaths — a situation they labelled an epidemic. It was a huge number for a population of about 7,000, primarily Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en people, in the cluster of villages and reserves.
The suicide data was startling enough to garner national media attention and expressions of concern from the province, but no influx of new provincial or federal dollars to pay for prevention efforts.
That inaction ended after July 29, 2009, when Shaun Webber made his way onto the bridge and stepped onto the rocks beside the guardrail.
At 18, Webber enjoyed volleyball and soccer. He was a giving friend, with a smile that showed off his dimples. Still in high school, he had recently moved out of his family home. He was particularly close to his grandmother. The morning Webber headed to the bridge, he was distraught over a breakup with a girlfriend.
When the RCMP got the call about a suicidal person on the bridge, they responded according to their protocol. They blocked the bridge from either side to prevent anyone from inadvertently escalating the situation. The officers then called crisis negotiators in Terrace, B.C., almost two hours away, and talked to Webber while waiting for them to arrive.
Community members gathered nearby, as close as they could get. Webber asked to speak to his grandmother, but the RCMP would not let anyone approach. (Three years after the incident, Sgt. Jeff Pelley, who headed the detachment, would not comment about what happened that day. He spoke only in general terms about the standard response protocol.)
Three metres away on the bridge was a man who believes he could have saved Shaun Webber, if he’d been able to reach him. Roy Guerra Mella is a psychologist with a master’s degree in counselling. Originally from Chile, he too is Indigenous, and he had years of experience as a mental health professional. But on that day in 2009, he was a new mental health counsellor in the community. The RCMP officers blocking the bridge did not know or trust him. “I wasn’t allowed to intervene. I was told by the police that no one was allowed to speak to the boy, because they had their own team coming.”
By the time the team arrived, it was too late. Webber had gone over the edge.
Everyone was devastated, including the RCMP officers. “Everybody was crying,” Guerra Mella remembers.
This devastation is familiar to other First Nations communities across Canada, as well as the country’s Inuit regions. Suicide has become so commonplace it is almost normalized. Aboriginal youth take their own lives five to six times more often than non-Aboriginal youth, although precise statistics are hard to come by. Among Inuit youth, the suicide rates are even higher — roughly 11 times that of non-Aboriginal youth. Young Inuit men ages 15 to 19 are particularly at risk.
The sheer weight of the grief, trauma and loss that suicides trigger can paralyze community leaders and stricken survivors, leaving them incapable of responding with concrete steps to avert more deaths.
The sheer weight of the grief, trauma and loss that suicides trigger can
paralyze community leaders and stricken survivors, leaving them
incapable of responding with concrete steps to avert more deaths.
Something different happened in Gitxsan territory.
Even before Webber’s death, the community had begun coming together to try to prevent suicides.
one meeting, a group of close to 200 people spontaneously walked, en
masse, to the local high school and crashed a regular school day. They
asked the principal to assemble the students in the gymnasium. There,
speaker after speaker opened up to the kids. “You’re important. You’re
loved. And we don’t want you to die,” they said.
Deagle, a family physician who practised for 10 years in the Hazeltons,
calls what the adults did that day “the single biggest, most important
thing that happened in response to the epidemic.”
Webber’s death, anger and blame abounded. Some of those emotions were
aimed at Webber’s former girlfriend. Others, including Webber’s mother,
Sharlene Mowatt, blamed the RCMP for restricting access to the young man
as he agonized on the bridge. So when the Mounties called another
community meeting at Gitanmaax Hall, doctors, nurses, first responders,
hereditary chiefs, band councillors, mental health counsellors and other
residents turned out. The organizers expected 50 people; 250 arrived.
Brady, a mental health counsellor at the Gitanmaax Health Centre, was
among them. “It was very emotional,” he recalls. “There was a sense of
grieving for those whose lives had been lost. Frustration that we didn’t
have the services that we thought we should have.”
meeting progressed, a sense of hope emerged, says Brady. So did resolve.
Young people spoke about their desire for deeper connections with their
families, their elders and their culture. They protested the amount of
community resources being spent on organizing bingo, rather than
activities that built those connections, says Dr. Peter Newbery, the
medical director at Wrinch Memorial Hospital, a United Church-linked
acute care facility in Hazelton.
As community members talked,
they listed their communities’ strengths, and services that could help.
They proposed celebrations recognizing the accomplishments of the
living, rather than memorializing the dead. They brainstormed about
Out of those gatherings, a slate of
suicide-prevention activities and two critically important teams were
born — teams that hold promise as models for other Aboriginal
communities dealing with staggeringly high levels of suicide.
first was FAST (First Nations Action and Support Team), which focuses
primarily on prevention and “postvention.” Their prevention activities
include cultural rediscovery camps and mentoring workshops where older
youth teach younger children their roles in their culture and society.
The team focuses on nurturing wellness, pride, identity and resilience
in the face of the trauma inflicted by the residential school legacy and
colonization. FAST also supports families after a crisis has occurred,
because they may be at increased risk of suicide themselves.
second group was a crisis response team that Guerra Mella headed. For
the next three years, Guerra Mella, Gloria Stevens and other mental
health and addictions counsellors were always on call, whether the phone
rang during regular work hours or not. Any time anyone in crisis called
a hotline, it connected to Guerra Mella’s BlackBerry. He then alerted
the team member closest to the person in danger and headed for the scene