TEMISCAMING, Que. — With heavy hearts but a noble purpose, Melissa Robinson and Matt King are hosting online discussions with Indigenous youth in the hopes no family will have to experience what theirs has.
It was in 2018 the Temicaming, Que., couple's 20-year-old niece Cyrah took her own life. Robinson describes her as a talented artist and "so full of life." For King, who was close to Cyrah, her death was a devastating blow in a family history full of them — including the suicides of his own father and uncle when he was a boy.
"They all had so much to live for," observes Robinson. "It was a very difficult time for us."
Robinson and King then spent the better part of two years searching for answers and discovering a desire to make a difference in the lives of young people. First, they hosted a financially successful benefit concert in North Bay but they felt they had more to offer.
Robinson says, "We decided raising money is one thing but creating opportunities for youth to connect — and also to get to know us — and to share their stories and to meet other people who might inspire them would be way more helpful."
Together, they came up with Let's Visit, a series of virtual conversations with Indigenous youth who may be struggling with mental health. They host and moderate the sessions, along with some special guests.
"We will cover a variety of different topics every Wednesday night throughout August," on the Zoom platform, says Robinson. "The main goal of this project is to offer support through COVID-19 and to create an opportunity for guests to enjoy a meaningful conversation — and to leave feeling good."
The series kicked off with Adrian Sutherland as its first guest this past week and was a success for their first try at a virtual conversation, according to Robinson. Sutherland is the singer and founder of band Midnight Shine and an ambassador for the Downie Wenjack Fund. He is from Attawapiskat and is a respected cultural leader and entrepreneur in the community.
Let's Visit continues at 7 p.m. each Wednesday in August with Indigenous storytelling next up August 12. Former NHLer Jordin Tootoo is the special guest on August 19. And, the series wraps up with a discussion on self-identity August 26, and asks participants, "What does being Indigenous mean to you?"
Now retired, Tootoo is known for his advocacy regarding Indigenous mental health and addictions, as well as support for suicide awareness and prevention. He is the first Inuk player as well as the first to grow up in Nunavut to play in an NHL game.
The Let's Visit series is funded by a Canadian Roots Exchange grant and is presented by Robinson and King's foundation Biidaaban. With their vision of helping Indigenous youth, it is appropriate, as Biidaaban is an Anishinaabe term, meaning "the point at which the light touches the earth at the break of dawn."
The discussions are geared to Indigenous people ages 14 to 30 but Robinson says all are welcome, noting some cadets from North Bay took part in the last session. For more information on Let's Visit or if you are interested in joining the conversation, you can email or contact through Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
"We create opportunities for Indigenous youth to learn and we always promote life in all of its goodness," explains Robinson. She says losing Cyrah is the driving force behind their work, "to offer youth an opportunity to learn and connect with other people."
To the youth looking for a place to fit in or even just for someone to listen to them, Robinson says, "We want it to be known there are so many people that experience the same type of things. We want to inspire you and help you and offer support."