PRINCE ALBERT -- The two leaders behind an awareness walk and tipi camp last summer saw the provincial government act on their demand for a stronger suicide prevention plan last week.

Saskatchewan MLAs passed Bill 601 on Friday, which states that the Ministry of Health must establish a suicide prevention strategy and report on progress every year.

The bill was brought forward by NDP MLA Doyle Vermette, and was defeated in the legislature twice. After the bill was unanimously voted down a second time, Tristen Durocher and Christopher Merasty led an over 600 kilometre walk from Air Ronge to Regina, followed by a 44-day fast on legislature grounds called Walking with our Angels.

“When the news came out that the bill was voted down, I thought ‘We can’t just let this be another article of something that happened and oh so sad, let’s just move on,’” said Durocher.

“I wanted to have a response, so I think our walk did help push people’s awareness of this forward.”

Because the walk happened a few months before the provincial election, Durocher said people were coming forward to their MLAs about the need for better suicide prevention. Walking with our Angels was also brought up in the Saskatchewan Leaders’ Debate.

The province had already introduced Pillars for Life: The Saskatchewan Suicide Prevention Plan – but Durocher said it’s “basically a set of suggestions” with no accountability on the government to take action.

Durocher said the tipi camp outside of the legislature showed the faces behind the statistics. Over 100 photos surrounded the tipi of people across Saskatchewan who have died by suicide.

Those photos show “just a small sliver of this bigger picture,” he said.

Merasty said it was overwhelming when he heard that the bill had been passed unanimously.

“You don’t know how many lives you’ve saved by voting in this bill,” he said about the Sask. Party.

“I was very relieved, in a way, and knowing that what we did last year with the Walking with our Angels wasn’t for nothing.”

Merasty said one moment that sticks with him from Walking with our Angels is coming out of the tipi to see a family crying at the photos.

“When that two-year-old pointed at that picture and said ‘That’s my mommy,’ that hit me really, really hard.”

Merasty also founded Men of the North. The group aims to promote men’s well-being through weekly meetings and guest speakers. Last month, Men of the North held a four-day family support awareness campaign, which included a walk for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), a sacred fire and guest speakers.

According to Pillars for Life, which was released in May 2020, suicide is the leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 49 in northern Saskatchewan. Throughout the province, around 144 people die by suicide per year.

“Those are numbers and what we forced the public to do was to acknowledge the faces,” said Durocher.

“I think that’s good that there’s accountability for a timeline and an actual urgency to start discussion and action."