REGINA – “I like the laughing game because Dusty’s face goes red and it kind of scares me, but it makes me laugh,” Montana, a student at Peepeekisis School, said.
Montana and her classmates were playing a variety of theatre games with two researchers from the Indigenous People’s Health Research Centre.
Dustin Brass and Erin Goodpipe travel to Peepeekisis School every Thursday to run their program and research project “Acting Out! But in a Good Way.”
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On the surface, it looks like they’re just running artistic programming, but there’s something much deeper at work.
“It started off as a suicide prevention measure, but we found that kids already know what they’re doing is wrong, right?” Goodpipe said.
“We’re not trying to talk down to them, what we’re trying to do is insert strength into their identities through the arts as a health intervention.”
“That’s why now we use theatre games, visual arts, filmography, and we want to use that approach to teach them some skills and enjoy working in relational ways with each other,” Brass explained.
Recently, a mental health crisis has been taking place across the country, linked to suicides in First Nation communities.
The remote Ontario community of Attawapiskat recently declared a state of emergency following 10 suicide attempts on the weekend of April 8-10 and a suicide pact involving 13 youths.
READ MORE: Attawapiskat in state of emergency after 11 suicide attempts on Saturday; nearly 100 since August
In Manitoba, the Pimicikamak Cree Nation has had six suicides in the past two months and 140 attempts in the last three weeks.
Georgina Jolibois, the MP for Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River, said La Loche, Sask. is also walking a dangerously fine line.
Back at Peepeekisis, located about an hour’s drive northeast of Regina, Brass said Acting Out is having the desired effect on helping kids’ mental health.
“Just as you were filming others, a student talked to me about some good and bad times he was remembering to change his emotions during games. And I thought, jeez that’s exactly what we’re up to,” he said.
“We come together and show them that hey, we can be vulnerable, we can cry together, we can laugh together. We can do these things together and that’s ok.”
Brass and Goodpipe use holistic learning methods when they do their school visits. Over the past five years about 1,800 youths have been involved in lessons put on through Acting Out.
Now they want to take their programming and research to a bigger platform through developing policy.
“Policy change is so impactful, because it not only supports the one group that you worked with, but it starts to impact schools across this nation. So that’s where I’d like to see this work go in the next little while; to be able to listen and write that properly,” Brass said.
Both Goodpipe and Brass are hopeful that the Trudeau government will follow through on their promise to listen to First Nations concerns.
“I don’t know how many more statistics they need to see. We’re talking about human beings here that are under their care,” Brass said.
“At alarming rates, our suicide rates are astronomical. There needs to be something done, just like with the missing and murdered indigenous women, just like the survivors of residential schools.”
With files from Whitney Stinson