March 27, 2010
What a thrill and honour it is for me to be here, with my wife Evelyn, my oldest son Bruce and his friend Sherri and my grandson Miles, with all of you tonight, to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of this wonderful organization Nunavut Kamatsiaqtut Help Line, with whom I had the privilege of associating in a very small way in its very early years – so how nice to be remembered with this invitation to speak to you.
You know, I have been recently given a great honour of representing Nunavut in the Senate of Canada by the Prime Minister. I feel very fortunate and humbled to have this honour. I got there, though, with the support of the people of this community, who allowed me to gain experience in government and politics representing this community in the territorial legislature for an amazing sixteen years. I could not have gained this experience without your support and I am forever grateful for that. And now you have honoured me with this invitation to speak at this important event.
Let me first share with you some of my memories of those early years. The winter of 1989 was a bad one. There were not only a lot of suicides, but they involved a lot of young people. Iqaluit, which only had its new name for a couple of years, was a smaller place then, so we knew these young people…and it was so dispiriting to see a young life cut short…and there is that terrible feeling of helplessness.
But Iqaluit is a caring community. A conference was organized about what to do, and that was the first time that the idea of a help line staffed by trained volunteers, came up. A group of CBC employees organized a Curl-a-Thon with the idea of raising funds for the proposed help line.
Then a group of concerned citizens came together to form the first working committee for the creation of the line. At that time I was the MLA for Iqaluit – yes, back then there Iqaluit had only one MLA in the Assembly and I had also been selected as Premier of the Northwest Territories two years previously. That job required me to live in Yellowknife, where I had moved with my family, but usually I commuted to Iqaluit on weekends.
I remember being asked by Sheila Levy to attend one of the first organizational meetings of the committee on an afternoon one weekend – I believe it was at the high school.
The people who were there included Joshie Teemotee, Errol Fletcher, Suzanne Manomie, who is now a missionary in Russia – I still keep in touch with her, Jonathan Palluk, originally from Clyde River, Jerome Chisholm, who was then Vice Principal at Inuksuk High and of course Sheila Levy.
The group were full of ideas and enthusiasm but had very little money. No office. No phone.
It was decided that they should form and register a society – I think I helped with the paperwork – and then to seek help and support.
One of the first places we looked to for help was Bell Canada. At that time, it was Bell that provided phone service in the eastern Arctic. The local manager at the time was a prince of a man. He had been in Frobisher Bay many years earlier and had returned here voluntarily on the verge of retirement. I remember him showing pictures of him fishing with Ben Ell at the Sylvia Grinnel River – holding a big Arctic char!
Sheila and I made our pitch about wanting to try to do something about suicide – how there would be volunteers thoroughly trained in how to deal with people in help – and that we wanted Bell to donate a phone line.
He listened intently to us. His first response was: “What number do you want?” Sheila almost fell off her chair – but she quickly recovered… “3333” she said. And that’s how Kamatsiaqtut got the number used to this day!
The next challenge was office space – but that too was solved – and this time it was through the good offices of Maliiganik Tukisiiniakvik, which was then in the old courthouse – the Arnakalak Building. Calling that space an office was generous – Sheila called it a cupboard. It had a door on one side and a door at the other – and it was just possible to squeeze in a desk, phone and chair!
The first year, Kamatsiaqtut only served Iqaluit, but after having received 400 local calls, the board realized that there was a need for services in neighbouring Nunavik and beyond. That was when a 1 800 number was established, also provided free through the generosity of Bell Canada and the total commitment of their local manager and staff.
Then Kamatsiaqtut was allocated space by the GNWT at no cost– yes, that was before division – the old territorial government in far away Yellowknife that we wanted to replace with Nunavut. That space was about twice the size of the cupboard at Arnakalak – on the first floor of the Brown Building where the old post office was located.
The office then moved into the Hi-Rise, helped by generous subsidies by FDL and its successor Nunastar.
Times changed. NorthwesTel took over from Bell and the free phone line fell by the wayside. Nunavut was established and the new Government of Nunavut asked Kamatsiaqtut to add capacity to help people dealing with HIV and AIDS in return for an annual subsidy.
And the service continued, available to people in help 365 days a year.
Despite the subsidy from the GN, the rent subsidy from Nunastar and support from First Air, another major sponsor, there was not nearly enough funds to cover the phone bills.
As Sheila Levy told me in her usual modest understatement: “…sometimes it takes quite a bit to keep everything going 365 days per year.”
Yes, I keep mentioning Sheila. She has been the constant driving force, the mother of Kamatsiaqtut…the chief fundraiser, , the constant recruiter of new volunteers, the devoted trainer. The Kamatsiaqtut volunteers are not just people off the street – they are trained in risk assessment and techniques which are all aimed at encouraging people to choose life – even just for one more day.
Sheila is a modest, humble, self-effacing lady. She would be the first to say “It’s not me.” It’s our volunteers. It’s the people who donate so generously in response to our appeals – that make Kamatsiaqtut what it is.” Well, I beg to differ.
There are of course many people who have contribute to the success we are celebrating tonight. But there is one big reason why this amazing service has run 365 days per year for twenty years – that’s 7,300 days. There is a driving force behind this wonderful society. It’s a small woman with a big heart – who oozes compassion and kindness from every pore – and abundant, unflagging energy and stamina. Sheila Levy represents hope fighting against despair, activism against apathy, compassion against indifference.
How does she keep going over all these years? How do you volunteers and supporters keep going for all these years?
I think I know the answer. And you volunteers know the answer. Kamatsiaqtut saves lives and it gives comfort to those who need it most…helping people cope with the crosses they bear.
What can be more important or gratifying than that?This is the most amazing and the most important thing about Kamatsiaqtut.
Do you remember how Canada stopped doing whatever we were doing when we and the wolrd were watching the Olympics last month – and how in the runup to the Olympics we were all so horrified when that young Georgian luger lost his life in a practise run, in front of our eyes. I will never forget that moment – I was in the Sugar Shack in Rankin Inlet having a coffee, waiting for a plane,watching the Olympics on TV, when it happened in front of my eyes. I heard the clang as that young man’s head hit the steel pillar on which he was thrown.
How horrifying to see a life snuffed out so suddenly and shockingly. We realize, whenever we are exposed to the shock and suddenness of death, how precious is life, how much we should cherish every minute, every second, we are alive on this amazing earth.
That’s what I am getting to. Kamatsiaqtut is about saving lives. I know this because I talked about this with Sheila recently. I asked her about this in preparing for tonight, because of course if Kamatsiaqtut did save even one life over twenty years it was all worthwhile, all the sacrifice, all the time.
I’m going to share a story, which tells us something about the challenges the helpline volunteers face every time they show up for duty. As those of you who have taken on this huge challenge know, some callers are at very high risk. They wouldn’t be calling if they weren’t.
The volunteers are trained to assess the risk and use techniques to do their best to persuade a highly suicidal person to make the right choice, even just for that night… and if they do, they consider it a good night.
But one night, the helpline volunteer was not able to persuade the caller to make the choice of life, and the caller hung up, saying she was going to hang herself. The call was traced, the police came in the nick of time. The caller had hung herself but she was rescued in time and her life was saved.
You know what – she had not locked her door. The police did not need to break it down to get in. A small part of this woman, even in her despair, wanted to live.
Later, she phoned back and gratefully thanked Kamatsiaqtut and she has done well ever since. To this day. Back from the very verge of death. So grateful for the gift of life.
One life saved by the grace of God and the milk of human kindness. And there were have been others over the years… maybe even more than Kamatsiaqtut knows and more than are revealed in the meticulous logs you have kept for twenty years.
You have done what you set out to do, you have made a profound difference in the lives of people you exist to help, and for their families and friends….continuously providing anonymous and confidential telephone counselling and contact services for northern residents who need a listening and non judgmental ear to talk about personal problems or who are in help. Callers express their suicidal ideas. They open up about trauma, anger, grief and pain resulting from unresolved issues. They describe their isolation, fear, frustration and lack of resources or lack of information – resulting in barriers to the resolution of their problems.
We are celebrating this important anniversary tonight, and we should be joyous, about being alive and the rewards of being kind and generous to our fellow human beings.
From informal comments, and reports from agencies, hamlets, officials and citizens…we know that the line has made a significant and positive and even lifesaving impact on the lives of many people
And there is more that you have done. Kamatsiaqtut, from its humble beginnings in a tiny donated office cupboard with a phone line donated by a compassionate regional manager of a big multinational company, has also inspired people who are working at the huge challenge of suicide prevention all across this great country and beyond.
In both 1994 and 2003, the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention held their annual conferences. Kamatsiaqtut was the host and the inspiration. These successful events were the first national conferences of this kind held in the north. People came from throughout Canada, the USA and even internationally. These two conferences were enormously successful and significant – described by one seasoned observer as ‘the most supportive venue for suicide prevention, intervention and postvention information exchange and support ever convened.’
Kamatsiaqtut was the host and the inspiration. Volunteers were pivotal in the organization and attended these inspiring events.
Kamatsiaqtut was also honoured by Lakehead University, which sought out Kamatsiaqtut in 2003 and did an extensive analysis of the help line’s detailed log books – helping us learn about this most challenging area – understanding and preventing suicide. So you have contributed by allowing the documentation and sharing your extensive experience in the important world of research and academic analysis.
Kamatsiaqtut also performs many other volunteer functions as well as the work of being on the helplines, and hosting conferences. This inclues training other groups and individuals and offering workshops. Some volunteers are also on the Board of the Nunavut Embrace Life Council.
Kamatsiaqtut is valued for providing a necessary and needed service, in an extremely cost effective manner. As Sheila Levy told me, ‘it is primarily the unspoken result that sustains the service.’
Well tonight, I have spoken about what you are doing and how grateful we are. I have told a shocking but happy story about one night, of many, when the help line saved a life.
So let us celebrate tonight and be glad.
Speaking Notes – Nunavut Kamiatsiaqtut Help Line