Island trio runs healing path for First Nations suicide awareness

Kelly Paul still remembers the phone call from her father four years ago saying her brother had committed suicide.

Isaac was 17 years old and supposed to graduate from high school.

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“It was disbelief. Itwasn’t something I ever expected to come from my family,” said Paul, a First Nations educational assistant and member of the Tsartlip First Nation community.

To raise awareness about suicide in First Nations communities, Paul, Bernice Smith and John Sampson Jr. embarked on a run down Vancouver Island, 535 kilometres from Port Hardy to Brentwood Bay.

The Heliset Hale Marathon — the name means “awaken life within you” — started May 18 and finished Friday to mark Aboriginal Day.

The run had been in the planning stages for a year and a half as Paul searched for fellow runners.

“Having them with me lifted a weight off my shoulders,” she said. “They’re my brothers and sisters now.”

More than 40 runners, including schoolchildren and volunteers, ran the final stretch from Keating Cross Road to LAU,WELNEW Tribal School on West Saanich Road.

Traditional drummers chanted while the three runners made a final lap before crossing the finish line.

The runners set a goal of $20,000 — which they met — to cover the cost of the run, with any additional funds going toward the construction of a new gym at the school.

The journey helped each of the runners face personal demons.

Sampson, of the Tsawout First Nation, found his cousin after he committed suicide, and the run helped bring him out of his shell and share his story with schools and communities.

Smith, of the Tsartlip First Nation, said running helped her gain confidence.

Friends and well-wishers travelled from across Victoria, and some came from as far away as Fort Rupert to cheer the runners as they crossed the finish line.

Kaleb Child taught Paul in high school and hosted the runners during their time in the Port Hardy area.

“It’s just so amazing to think of the young, idealistic lady she was [and] to see her now at age 29 making huge waves in our community,” he said.

Child is the district principal of school district 85 — which encompasses Port Hardy, Port McNeill, Port Alice, Sointula, Alert Bay, Woss Lake and Holberg — and says having the runners come through the community helped generate much-needed discussion.

First Nations youth commit suicide an average of five to six times more often than non-native youth, and suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading causes of death for First Nations people under the age of 44, according to Health Canada.

Tsartlip Chief Ivan Morris struggles to understand why his son committed suicide nearly two years ago, but says the run shows people are willing to discuss the issue and help.

“I’m hoping it shows them that there is hope and instilling hope in their minds that this world isn’t all evil,” he said.

“We can help the people who need to be helped.”

nwells@timescolonist.com

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