When the community of Attawapiskat called a state of emergency last April, many Canadians learned for the first time just how high the risk of suicide is for indigenous youth living in remote First Nations communities.
For Kelvin Redvers, an indigenous filmmaker belonging to the Denınu K’ue First Nation, it was simply a reminder of an issue that has been affecting Canadian reserves for as long as he can remember.
“A lot of people think this is a new thing that just started happening, but the truth is, it’s been going on for years,” Redvers tells the Straight at a downtown café.
He says in his mother’s community of roughly 400 near Hay River, Northwest Territories, when friends and neighbours are asked about their experiences with suicide, some need two hands to count the incidences that have occurred in the past five years alone.
“And these are small communities, so each one can really have a ripple effect,” Redvers says.
It was around the time that Attawapiskat was in the headlines that he found himself discussing Dan Savage’s It Get’s Better project with a colleague. The web-based outreach platform gives LGBTQ youth the opportunity to watch positive video messages from celebrities, politicians, organizations, and other youth, while also providing them with mental health resources.
“It occurred to me how easily the model could work for indigenous people, especially because in First Nations communities, everybody is so far apart,” says Redvers.
He immediately called his sister, Tunchai, who lives in Ontario. Combining her skills as a master of social work student and their shared abilities as filmmakers, it seemed like the perfect fit, and the two began to explore ways to bring the idea to life.
As the founders of what would eventually become known as We Matter, Kelvin and Tunchai shared a vision of preventing suicide in indigenous communities by empowering youth through messages of hope.
“The entire project is basically built on good will,” Redvers says, explaining that legal, accounting, and design firms in Toronto and Vancouver were eager to help out and provided incorporation, accounting advice, and website design free of charge.
They began gathering the first 20 video messages for We Matter’s web platform, reaching out to people like A Tribe Called Red, Wab Kinew, Elizabeth May, Cindy Blackstock, and Ryan McMahon, before connecting with regional organizations and hosting a focus group with indigenous youth in Vancouver. It was facilitated with help from the Urban Native Youth Association, the Aboriginal Friendship Centre, and Van Tech Secondary.
Since then, Redvers and his sister have travelled to Attawapiskat, Ontario, and Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, to share their important messages with youth in those communities.
He and his sister speak to large groups before each running smaller breakout sessions where youth are encouraged to find their own message of hope and strength through poetry, artwork, photography, and storytelling.
“In Attawapiskat, we were showing the videos and we did a presentation in the gym,” Redvers recalls. “You had 18-year-old men that were becoming visibly choked up, because it really struck a chord with them. And each time we reached out to a new group of young people, we felt further emboldened to keep doing what we were doing, because the response was so tremendous.”
Within the first month of the non-profit’s launch on October 18, We Matter was able to reach more than a million people across the country through social media.
“Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it would become something that would receive so much attention, but this was what we were pushing for, because we knew it was a simple idea that everybody could get behind.”
For Redvers, it’s is just one part of his goal to help create healthy, vibrant indigenous communities where youth are connected to their land and culture, and have the resiliency to feel good about who they are.
He says a large part of why indigenous youth feel hopeless stems from intergenerational trauma associated with residential schools and the loss of culture.
“It [residential school] really shut people in. People weren’t allowed to talk, or feel sad, or feel happy, or feel at all. In a lot of communities, there’s this attitude of ‘don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel’, that has been forced into our parents and grandparents by nuns and priests, and that ripples through the generations and makes it uncomfortable for us to talk about the issues that are going on,” he says.
“So with We Matter, where these videos are public and visible, it normalizes that it’s important to talk about feeling pain.”
Another vital characteristic of the project is that it encourages indigenous youth to reclaim their voices. Redvers says that while the narrative of who First Nations people are in the public eye is often told by others, We Matter gives youth an opportunity to speak for themselves.
“Just the model of people sharing their own voices and their own experiences is important to move beyond that feeling of us being out of control of our own story,” he says.
The feedback Redvers has received from those who have watched and shared video messages provides him with a sense of hope that no previous job ever came close to.
“The feeling is different with this, because at the end of the day, no matter how stressed out and exhausted I feel, I really do have the feeling that we are doing something meaningful. It’s a powerful feeling to get in your soul.”
The day after the site launched, Redvers remembers receiving a simple message of gratitude from a young woman who had discovered the website:
“Thank you for the reminder that I matter.”
He encourages those that support the project to contribute their own messages through videos, writing, or artwork, at WeMatterCampaign.org.