A Saskatchewan judge has ruled against the provincial government and in favour of the religious freedom of a Métis man fasting and praying on the front lawn of the Saskatchewan legislature for a more robust suicide prevention strategy.
The day before the Sept. 11 court ruling, Tristen Durocher’s vigil and 40-day fast in a teepee in Regina’s Wascana Park had garnered the formal, public support of 18 religious leaders from the Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Baha’i, Unitarian and Jewish communities of the province.
Before the court halted the province’s plan to send the police in to dismantle the teepee and evict Durocher, Regina Archbishop Don Bolen was in no doubt that Durocher’s protest was a religious act.
“I am personally quite inspired by what Tristan Durocher has done, the ceremony he has carried out — 40 days of fasting ending in four days,” Bolen said. “And I wanted to work with other faith communities in expressing support for that.”
Durocher walked 600 kilometres from northern Saskatchewan to set up camp near the legislature in June. He is demanding that lawmakers vote for better funding for suicide prevention. On June 19 the governing Saskatchewan Party voted down Bill 618, which would have mandated spending on the issue. In May the government instead issued Pillars for Life: The Saskatchewan Suicide Prevention Plan. The plan does not mandate any additional spending.
Every province outside of Saskatchewan has legislation similar to Bill 618.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for people age 10 to 49 in northern Saskatchewan, which has a high concentration of Indigenous communities. Between 2005 and 2019, more than 2,200 people in Saskatchewan died by suicide, according to the Saskatchewan Coroner’s Service.
“First Nations, Métis and Inuit have considerably higher rates of suicide, especially among youth,” said the Sept. 10 Interfaith Statement on Suicide Prevention signed by Bolen, Ukrainian Catholic Bishop of Saskatoon Bryan Bayda, Keewatin-Le Pas Archbishop Murray Chatlain, Saskatoon Bishop Mark Hagemoen, Prince Albert Bishop Albert Thévenot and other faith leaders.
The interfaith statement is “definitely a very meaningful gesture of reconciliation,” said Prescott Demes, who has supported Durocher’s vigil and led other Indigenous protests in recent years.
The faith leaders said they wanted to “express our support for people and communities struggling with suicide, to invite our faith communities to pray and work for a solution to the epidemic of suicide among Indigenous and youth in Saskatchewan, and to call upon all sectors to work together to enact a comprehensive and long-term suicide prevention strategy.”
The faith leaders’ statement isn’t political, said Bolen.
“The major push of our document is to not only ask the government but faith communities and society as a whole, in all its institutions, to work together to support a suicide prevention plan that works, that has substance to it,” he said. “We are working on various fronts to learn how to walk with Indigenous people in a way that brings healing and addresses the wounds we were involved in inflicting in the past.”
The history of residential schools and the damage they caused to Indigenous families has been linked to higher suicide rates for Indigenous Canadians.
Ministry of Justice spokeswoman Marieka Andrew told The Canadian Press the provincial government is reviewing the ruling.