'You have got to talk about it': Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation chief opens up about suicide

Chief Eugene Hart says it's been helpful speaking publicly about his family's experience with suicide. He hopes to inspire others struggling with it to open up.

Chief Eugene Hart lost both his nephew and his sister to suicide within the past 5 years

Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation Chief Eugene Hart is speaking out about suicide after losing both his nephew and sister to suicide within the past five years. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

The chief of the Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation is speaking out about his own family's experience with suicide in the hopes it helps others within his community.

"You still have that numbness that you're working on," Eugene Hart said.

"You have got to talk about it in order to grieve like me, I'm still grieving."

A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Public Health showed that suicide rates among Innu people in Labrador is 10 times higher than the national average, and 14 times higher than on the island of Newfoundland.

Hart lost both his sister Marilyn Martin, pictured, and his nephew Uapastan Martin to suicide within the past five years. (Submitted)

Hart was invited as a keynote speaker at a national suicide convention in St. John's last week. It was the first time he spoke publicly about losing his sister and 16-year-old nephew to suicide, both within the past five years.

I want to give back to my community, the help that I couldn't give my family.- Eugene Hart

"A lot of my friends at the conference, they didn't know I went through that," Hart said.

"They were like, 'I know why you're a chief now. I know why you want to do this for your community.'"

Hart said the tragedies were part of why he became chief three years ago.

"I want to give back to my community, the help that I couldn't give my family," Hart said.

He said speaking about suicide has helped him. He said those who are affected by it shouldn't be scared to talk about what they are going through.

"They're afraid to confront [it] with their family. They're afraid to admit that they need help," Hart said.

"But I don't think anybody should be afraid."

School experience

Hart worked in the school system in Sheshatshiu for nearly 16 years before becoming chief. He said suicide is a noticeable problem among children returning from care outside the community. 

He said when those children come back, they have lost their language, culture and their connection to the community.

"The rates was high then for suicide," Hart said.

"So what's the point of bringing them outside? Did we bring them outside for hope or did we bring them outside to get help?.… I don't really think they get the service they needed."

Hart poses with Dr. Michael Jong at the signals of hope conference in St John's last week. Jong authored a study entitled Suicide Rates in Aboriginal Communities in Labrador. (Submitted)

He also pointed toward challenges in Sheshatshiu providing services for youth to keep them occupied and out of trouble.

The community lost funding for its recreation director during the sweeping provincial budget cuts of 2016. It has found funding to keep that position since then but he still denounces the cutback.

"For a community that's isolated and in dire need. I don't understand why the cutback needed to happen, especially in our community," Hart said.

"It keeps them out of trouble."

Hart said Sheshatshiu will be holding its second suicide conference at the end of this month. He was pleased with how it went last year and how it gave families the chance to meet directly with counselors. 

He hopes to see the same, this year.


Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service

Toll-free: 1-833-456-4566.
Text: 45645.
Chat: crisisservicescanada.ca.

In French: Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

Hope for Wellness Help Line: This service provides immediate, culturally competent counselling for all Indigenous people. 

Kids Help Phone: Toll-free: 1-800-668-6868. Chat: kidshelpphone.ca. App: Always There by Kids Help Phone.

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre.

If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them about it, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. Here are some warning signs: 

  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Purposelessness.
  • Anxiety.
  • Feelings of being trapped.
  • Hopelessness and helplessness.
  • Withdrawal.
  • Anger.
  • Recklessness.
  • Mood changes.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Jacob Barker

Videojournalist

Jacob Barker reports on Labrador for CBC News from Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

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