The Prince Albert Grand Council is hosting more than 200 teachers and health and wellness workers from First Nations across the province this week, aiming to give frontline workers a community-based suicide prevention strategy.

The two-day event is in response to the recent suicides of six girls, between 10 and 14 years old, in northern Saskatchewan.

“Suicide is like the canary in the coalmine,” says Dr. Darien Thira, a psychologist and the event’s keynote speaker. “A suicidal person is expressing the pain of the entire community.”

Thira has worked with over 40 indigenous communities across Canada and his work has translated into a national program in Australia.

Suicides are not a matter of mental illness, but a loss of culture, he says.

“We're looking at this from the point of a mental health crisis. There is no mental health crisis in the aboriginal community,” said Thira. “The community is responding naturally to the pain of colonization and the ongoing violation of the colonial enterprise."

Grand Chief Ron Michel echoes the concept.

“One of the things I’m relaying to government is you have to give us the right — the right to govern ourselves; the right to take care of ourselves,” he said. “We’re peoples that took care of ourselves for many, many centuries and I think it’s time to look at the governance of our people.”

The solution to preventing suicides can be found close to home, he said.

“You’re the medicine. This is where it all starts.”

The conference is an opportunity for frontline workers to learn tools that will empower youth.

Clifford Ballantyne, a support worker at Sturgeon Lake, says it’s important to meet kids and teens in a way that is comfortable for them.

“The best way that I approach is that I engage in the youth,” Ballantyne said. “We had our researchers come down, and we’re trying to do a focus group. We had 10 pizzas. Nobody showed up. And I was saying, ‘Here's the thing — we have to go back to the drawing board.’”

The conference will conclude Tuesday afternoon.