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A decade after suicide attempts, Mi’kmaq woman has found clarity

Margaret Paul wrote a poem for her late brother Terrance Johnson of Potlotek First Nation on what would have been his 50th birthday - May, 28, 2015. Johnson died by suicide when he was just 29 years old.
Margaret Paul wrote a poem for her late brother Terrance Johnson of Potlotek First Nation on what would have been his 50th birthday - May, 28, 2015. Johnson died by suicide when he was just 29 years old. - Erin Pottie

‘I believe there’s a reason I survived on those days’

MEMBERTOU, N.S. — Margaret Paul has survived back-to-back attempts on her own life.

While recovering in hospital from a suicide bid, she told nurses she felt like a failure. But over a decade later, the Mi’kmaq woman has found clarity.

“It’s an illness that takes you,” said the 56-year-old who works as an educator in Membertou.

“It’s a mental illness and it’s a depression that takes you just to the edge. I often wondered what made me so special? How could I not do this right?

Paul’s familiarity with personal pain is extensive. She lost her brother to suicide in 1993 and, in 2001, she witnessed the self-inflicted death of a former partner.

Paul grew up in a large family from Potlotek – one of five Indigenous communities in Cape Breton, most of which are spread out along the shores of the Bras d’Or.

For two days near Halloween in 2007, Paul tried to take her own life. She ended up at an Antigonish hospital.

"Mental illness is a demon that you deal with on a daily basis and sometimes the demon is sleeping and will leave you alone, and other times the demon tells you you’re no good; you’re worthless.” — Margaret Paul

She later apologized to her three sons and vowed she would never do it again.

“I don’t make a lot of promises, but this is one promise that I will never break,” Paul said. “And throughout those 12 years there have been times when I have been tempted because it’s a demon. Mental illness is a demon that you deal with on a daily basis and sometimes the demon is sleeping and will leave you alone, and other times the demon tells you you’re no good; you’re worthless.”

Paul is opening up about her struggles with depression in the wake of several suicides in Eskasoni First Nation and in other communities across Cape Breton.

Average suicide rates higher in Indigenous communities

When suicide occurs, particularly in close-knit communities in Cape Breton, Paul said the pain spreads like ripples on the water.

She witnessed its impacts with the death of her brother, 29-year-old Terrance Johnson.

“We may be separated by geography, there may be a lake in between each of the communities, but we’re all still family,” Paul said.



“When you’re in it, you think it just affects you. After the noise settles down you start hearing peoples’ stories — they share with you things that your brother has said or done, and you think of the magnitude — you think about the impact that that one person had on so many different people.”

Exactly a decade ago, the province’s largest Mi’kmaq community began garnering national attention – including visits from an Olympic athlete and video chats with a high-profile actor – after a tragic spate of suicides.

But the problem in Eskasoni stretches far beyond its shores.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the average rate of suicide among Indigenous peoples in Canada can be five to seven times higher than the general population.

Calgary-based executive director of the Centre for Suicide Prevention Mara Grunau said it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact figure, as provinces do not record ethnicity at the time of death.

First Nation communities often keep their own statistics, but they typically only record people living on reserve.

“When we look at different Indigenous communities some have absolutely sky-rocketing high rates of suicide and some have none,” Grunau said. “It’s not a label that you want to put on specific groups.”


The following poem was written by Margaret Paul for her brother Terrance on what would have been his 50th birthday:

I Think …

I think of this guy more often than not.

I think of the things that cannot be bought.

I think of the smiles that he has missed.

I think of the faces that he has not kissed.

I think of my mom. I think of my dad.

I think of the day that left us so sad.

I think of his daughters and of his one son.

I think of my siblings; our grief is all one.

Today would be the day of his birth.

The day that he joined us here upon earth.

He has gone and left us that is for sure.

But he really hasn’t left us of that I am sure.


Within the last five years, the centre has published a toolkit on Indigenous suicide prevention that includes contributing factors to high incidence rates.

“What we see — and this isn’t just in Canada but other places too with Indigenous people — is the effects of colonization,” Grunau said. “The precipitating factors for suicide in Indigenous communities are completely different than the precipitating factors in the general population.”

In 1995, a special report on suicide in First Nations communities by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended the implementation of a national strategy to address the ongoing crisis.

“What we see — and this isn’t just in Canada but other places too with Indigenous people — is the effects of colonization.” — Mara Grunau, executive director of the Centre for Suicide Prevention

Spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada William Olscamp said Thursday that Ottawa launched its National Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy in 2004.

“In line with the commission’s recommendation for the need for community-led approaches, this program supports Indigenous community and organization-led projects,” Olscamp said.

“Evaluations have shown that this program is effective in supporting youth by reducing risk factors and increasing protective factors, particularly key Indigenous protective factors like culture, language, and sense of community.”

Olscamp said following the commission’s report, a great deal of work has been undertaken to prevent suicide in Indigenous communities.

False perceptions

People sometimes struggle to understand how mental illness works, said Paul.

She’s been offered reasons for why she shouldn’t be depressed. For example, Paul is gainfully employed and holds a masters’ degree in education. But the illness doesn’t discriminate.

“It just doesn’t happen that way,” Paul said. “I’ve seen therapists to help me and I have sleep issues. I don’t know if depression and insomnia go hand-in-hand.”

Paul said she sees a greater problem with today’s youth having great expectations placed on them.

She said often people will attempt to present a perfect image on social media.

“It’s an age where people are on Facebook, they’re texting, people are capturing a fake life through Instagram, through Twitter,” she said.

“(Suicide) is a cycle that’s going and there are so many causes. I find all the time, people want to know why did it happen? What was it so bad?

“After the fact, people will say ‘Oh, I wish I had known what you were going through, I could have been there, I could have talked to you.’”

Opening up

After her suicide attempts, Paul said no one approached her to talk about it.

She said the subject of death remained taboo in her own family.

Recently, Paul said she used humour to speak to her adult son about her final wishes.

Paul asked if he was planning to have her stuffed and left on the front step.

“He said ‘I’ll bury you by the apple tree, but I’m not getting you a stone — do you know how hard it is to mow around those stones?’

“We’ve come to a resolution with it. We’re able to talk about it.”

The Membertou woman said she understands there is a reluctance when talking about painful subjects.

But she said individuals who are distressed could benefit greatly from opening up.

“They need to know that there are people out there who have gone through what they have and they are willing to talk,” Paul said.

“I often wondered, how come I failed? And maybe this is why I failed. Maybe it’s to give a voice to the people who can’t talk about mental illness or the ones who can’t talk about depression. Maybe it’s to start the dialogue … but I believe there’s a reason I survived on those days.”

For suicide prevention and support, a free hotline is available at any time by phoning 1-833-456-4566.

A texting service is also offered between 5 p.m. and 1 a.m. AST by messaging 45645.

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Related:

• Eskasoni grieving after multiple deaths

• Eskasoni chief says deaths underline desperate need for mental health funding

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