The Hagwilget Canyon Bridge over the Bulkley River in Gitxsan territory, B.C. Several Aboriginal youth have attempted or committed suicide at the bridge. Photo by Sam Beebe/Flickr/Creative Commons
The Hagwilget Canyon Bridge over the Bulkley River in Gitxsan territory, B.C. Several Aboriginal youth have attempted or committed suicide at the bridge. Photo by Sam Beebe/Flickr/Creative Commons

Topics: Justice | Society

How a Gitxsan community fought back against an epidemic of youth suicide


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.

At 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.

Dr. George 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.”

But after 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.

Alf 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.”

As the 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 deepening connections.

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.

The 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.

The 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 himself.

Family members and friends hold a prayer circle for Shaun Webber (pictured in the frame), who committed suicide in July 2009. He was 18 years old. Photo by John Lehmann/Globe and Mail/The Canadian Press
Family members and friends hold a prayer circle for Shaun Webber (pictured in the frame), who committed suicide in July 2009. He was 18 years old. Photo by John Lehmann/Globe and Mail/The Canadian Press

By July 2012, team members had intervened in 94 calls from people threatening to take their own lives. The team didn’t lose a single person.

The crisis sometimes took one or more team members back to the Hagwilget Canyon Bridge. Once, it was another young man threatening to end his life. This time, the RCMP allowed both Stevens and Guerra Mella, who had forged a relationship with the officers, to get close enough to support family members.

“I had one of this young gentleman’s relatives beside me, and she was standing there hollering and crying and calling her cousin by name,” Stevens says. “So I stood beside her, and I encouraged her. I told her, ‘Just keep letting him hear your voice. Just keep telling him his family is here.’ He was listening to her voice.” After a time, the young man backed away from the edge and came to his waiting family.

On another occasion, an intoxicated young woman climbed over the railing. A call brought Guerra Mella and Stevens to the scene, where the woman’s mother and other family members gathered. Guerra Mella helped the family talk to the young woman. Eventually, she moved close enough that people could pull her back.

In a July 2012 interview, Guerra Mella described the way he coaxed suicidal young people off the bridge or away from the river. He began by asking them about the pain that brought them there.

The people he counselled told him about physical, sexual and emotional abuse, staggering levels of unemployment, alcohol and drug addiction, and underlying mental health problems. They spoke of what therapist Darien Thira, who offered a mentoring workshop to the youth, calls the “soul wounds” of colonization and residential school trauma.

“The questions that I ask them are, ‘When was the last time you slept? How come you are here? Have you been drinking? Who do you miss the most?’ Just any question that I see might fit,” said Guerra Mella. “Because the contact is not intellectual. . . . It comes from the heart.”

Then Guerra Mella would offer his cellphone so the youth could call someone important to them. But they had to come close enough to use it. “I usually say, ‘You have to get off the edge. I am not walking towards you — you have to walk towards me. And they start walking.”

Most of the young people who ended up on the bridge went there during the day, when they would be spotted, rather than at night, when they could have jumped undetected, Stevens points out. “They know that there are people that will try to stop them. And they’re saying, ‘Help.’ They’re calling ‘Help,’ even though they’re saying the words, ‘I’m going to jump,’” she says.

What they need is someone to listen to and acknowledge their pain, she continues. “Because when people are on the verge of suicide, they are believing they are rejected people.”

For both Stevens and Guerra Mella, responding to the crisis calls was frightening. “When you’re doing it, you’re actually sweating bullets. Because you know — if you say one thing wrong, they’re gone,” Guerra Mella said, choking up.

Once the crisis team had averted an incident, though, Guerra Mella felt another emotion replace the fear. Responding became addictive. “There’s a rush of adrenalin, once you take them off and drive them to a hospital. . . . The adrenalin is so strong that when I’m driving away from the hospital, I’m saying, ‘When is the next one? When is the next one coming up?’”

Other communities can learn from the experience in the Hazeltons. Julie Morrison, executive director of the Gitxsan Health Society, says community involvement in prioritizing suicide prevention and wellness activities, including crisis response teams, is paramount. “If the community is involved in the process and the healing and rebuilding, it’s going to be more successful than having people coming in and telling us what to do.”

One of the more sobering lessons is that the 24-7 approach to suicide prevention can take a toll on team members themselves. Eventually, the long unpaid hours and the emotional strain burned Guerra Mella out. He quit and left the community in late 2012. Stevens, ill from repeated bouts of cancer, had already retired. Without its strongest personalities and champions, the crisis response team disbanded.

“Trying to engage in that kind of supportive activity over a long period of time is hugely demanding and wearing,” says Newbery, the hospital medical director. “I don’t know of many people who are able to carry it on for more than a couple of years before they get burned out, particularly if they are trying to deal with people in their own small village and community.”

Youth suicide remains a persistent threat in the Hazeltons, but attempts are “down significantly” from the levels that brought the teams into existence, says Newbery. Today, FAST members and the Gitxsan Health Society’s counsellors intervene in crises when they can. But FAST does not respond to scenes at all hours like Guerra Mella’s team did. “It came down to liability issues,” says Veronica Green, its current co-ordinator.

Six years after Shaun Webber died, his mother still catches herself looking for him as she passes the high school. On the anniversary of his death, she walks to the bridge. She remembers the little boy who loved watching Franklin the turtle cartoons. “Sometimes I look to the side and try to imagine him there,” she says.

For years after Webber’s death, Guerra Mella, too, asked himself, “What if?” He takes some comfort in the way Webber’s death galvanized the community. Still, in the years following that crisis on the Hagwilget Canyon Bridge, he used to speed across it in his red Hummer.

“Because I don’t want to be there. It brings back too many memories.”

This story originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of The Observer with the title “The bridge.”

Laura Eggertson is a writer and editor in Ottawa.


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