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Nunavut senator visits Iqaluit to boost suicide help line

“Kamatsiaqtut saves lives and it gives comfort”

By JANE GEORGE

Dennis Patterson, senator for Nunavut, visited Iqaluit this weekend to speak at the 20th anniversary fundraiser March 27. (PHOTO BY CHRIS WINDEYER)


Dennis Patterson, senator for Nunavut, visited Iqaluit this weekend to speak at the 20th anniversary fundraiser March 27. (PHOTO BY CHRIS WINDEYER)

If you’re depressed and possibly suicidal, help is only a call away at 1-800-265-3333.

Since 1990, the Iqaluit-based Kamatsiaqtut Help Line has been helping callers to choose life, recalled Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson, senator for Nunavut, who was in Iqaluit this weekend to speak March 27 at the 20th anniversary fund-raiser for Kamatsiaqtut Help Line.

The Kamatsiaqtut call line is staffed by trained volunteers, seven days a week, from 7 p.m. to midnight.

“Kamatsiaqtut saves lives and it gives comfort to those who need it most… helping people cope with the crosses they bear,” Patterson said. “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.”

While citing no numbers about the success of the help line, Patterson said that if Kamatsiaqtut did save even one life over 20 years of operation, it was “all worthwhile.”

“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,” said Patterson, who lost his former wife, Geela Kilabuk Giroux, to suicide in 2000.

Patterson recalled the year Kamatsiaqtut was founded, when he was MLA for Iqaluit as well as premier of the Northwest Territories.

“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,” Patterson said.

A conference was organized about what to do, and the idea of a help line staffed by trained volunteers came up.

A group of CBC employees then organized a Curl-a-Thon to raise money for the proposed help line, and some concerned citizens met to form the first working committee: Joshie Teemotee; Errol Fletcher; Suzanne Manomie, now a missionary in Russia; Jonathan Palluq, originally from Clyde River; Jerome Chisholm, then vice-principal at Inuksuk High School; and Sheila Levy.

“The group were full of ideas and enthusiasm but had very little money. No office. No phone,” Patterson recalled.

Patterson, who is a lawyer, helped register their new society, Bell Canada offered a free phone line and the group set up a desk and phone at the Arnakallak Building.

For its first year, Kamatsiaqtut only served Iqaluit, but after having received 400 local calls, service expanded to the region that now includes Nunavut and Nunavik.

Although the help line’s main focus is still on suicide prevention, after 1999, the Government of Nunavut asked Kamatsiaqtut to help people dealing with HIV and AIDS in return for an annual subsidy.

A bank of about 20 volunteers, who speak English, Inuktitut or French, now answer the calls.

Although calls are kept confidential and callers can remain anonymous, log books of the Kamatsiaqtut’s calls have also been used in research into suicide.

Patterson singled out Sheila Levy, a counsellor at Inuksuk High School, for her 20 years of involvement with the line, calling her “the mother of Kamatsiaqtut,” the chief fundraiser, the constant recruiter and the devoted trainer of new volunteers.

“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, ” Patterson said, before handing Levy a plaque recognizing her contribution to Kamatsiaqtut.

Errol Fletcher, one of the original committee members who now works for the GN, also attended the fundraising event at the Frobisher Inn, where he played with his Road-to-Nowhere band, as did Meeka Kakudluk, who has volunteered with Kamatsiaqtut from its beginnings.

As for the fundraiser, it was a sell-out, with more than 130 $75 tickets sold. The Iqaluit Rotary Club also handed the group a cheque for $1,500 during the evening.

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