Spotlight on trainees: Holiday card drive for Indigenous youth suicide crisis

Holiday Card drive by Hotchkiss Brain Institute Trainee Organization (HBITO) a success

Suicide is the leading cause of death for Canadian Indigenous youth, where the rates of suicide in some areas are as much as 33 times higher than for non-Indigenous populations. At least three First Nations communities have declared states of emergency due to suicide crises since the end of August, involving victims as young as 10 years old. 

After seeing a CBC news article about a Christmas card drive for Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation, the latest Indigenous community to declare a state of emergency due to youth suicide, I knew I wanted to help. In researching youth suicide in Indigenous communities, I was shocked and appalled to see the number of reservations that had declared a state of emergency in the last three months alone. Leveraging my position as the Social Director for the Hotchkiss Brain Institute Trainee Organization (HBITO), I immediately shared the idea of holding our own holiday card drive with the rest of the HBITO team who were quick to show their support. 

I contacted local Calgary bookstores Indigo, Chapters and Coles and secured donations of 400 holiday cards from the Chinook, Core, Market Mall and Dalhousie locations. We promoted this initiative by posting on our personal Facebook accounts, the HBITO Twitter account, sending out emails through the HBITO and Neuroscience Program email list, and the CFD Newsletter. I received messages from people in the Department of Psychology, the Biomedical Engineering Program, and the Cumming School of Medicine who also wanted to help. People wanted to donate money, so we set up a GoFundMe page and began fundraising. I provided cards to multiple different groups who brought the cards to holiday parties to pass around and fill out. We had a table set up in the Foothills Campus Health Sciences Centre mall every day at noon for two weeks, where people would grab a box of cards to take to their labs and bring the box back the next day with all the cards filled out. On the final day of the holiday card drive, which was the same day as the HBI holiday party, we spread cards and pens across the tables so that people could write their sentiments. 

The most special moment throughout this effort was promoting the initiative to Indigenous high school students from Morley First Nation at the Indigenous Mini-Health Professions Day run by the Alberta Indigenous Mentorship in Health Innovation (AIM-HI) Network at the University of Calgary. As soon as I had finished speaking, the students didn’t waste a second before coming up to fill out cards—many of whom filled out four and five cards each. To see the profound support from the Indigenous children and faculty brought an overwhelming sense of pride. 

Through the combined efforts of so many students and faculty at the University of Calgary, and with significant help from Samantha Baglot (Co-Director of Outreach, HBITO) and Faizan Malik (Vice President, HBITO) we were able to distribute the 400 cards equally amongst the three communities: Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation School (Sask.), God’s Lake Narrows School (MB.), and Sheshatshiu Innu School (NL.). We raised almost $2500 to purchase new sports equipment for the children at Makwa Sahgaiehcan School. I was also contacted by Jeff Shattler, an Indigenous lacrosse player on the Saskatchewan Rush National Lacrosse League team who obtained a collection of lacrosse sticks through his sponsors to donate to the kids. It was truly incredible to see the University of Calgary and the greater community come together to support this important cause. 

The principal of Makwa Sahgaiehcan School, Alice Sand, said: “Thank you all for the beautiful words and for everything that you are all doing to show your kindness and prayers for the students and community of Makwa Sahgaiehcan”. A CBC article reported that cards had been flooding in from all around the world, showing students and staff “that people care and that we’re not alone anymore”. The principal of Sheshatshiu Innu School, Greg Quilty, said that the cards were a nice surprise and that they are still distributing the cards around the classrooms for all the teachers and students to read. He said that some of their younger students in the English program are preparing some ‘thank you’ cards to send to us.           

Doug Podaima, the principal of God’s Lake Narrows School said: “The teachers and students loved the cards… Thank you for thinking about us”. Unfortunately, he also reported that their school has been closed for weeks due to a blown transformer and would not reopen “until a new one is sent on the winter road”. Even more unfortunate is that they have just had another suicide. This was a response that I was not expecting. When I asked if he thought sports equipment might be beneficial for the kids, he said: “we are always in need of sports equipment. I am working at making a fitness room as well. Thank you for any support you can give us.” As such, I am keeping our GoFundMe page open and am accepting donations so that we can provide sports equipment to the children at God’s Lake Narrows School as well. I will continue to raise awareness about the tragedies faced by Canadian Indigenous communities and will continue to do what I can to support them. 

Link to donate:

About Dion Kelly

Dion Kelly completed a Bachelor of Medical Sciences (BMSc) degree from the University of Western Ontario, as well as a Master of Biomedical Technology (MBT) degree from the University of Calgary before pursing her PhD in Neuroscience with Dr. Adam Kirton in the Calgary Pediatric Stroke Program. In her second year of studies, Kelly's research is focused on personalizing brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) for children with severe neurological disabilities. Her research utilizes various imaging modalities to assess brain connectivity and activity, with the goal of establishing a screening program for BCI use and optimizing BCI performance in children with quadriplegic cerebral palsy. 

Kelly is passionate about volunteerism and creating a positive impact. In addition to being a full-time PhD student, she also volunteers 2.5 hours a week at the Association for the Rehabilitation of the Brain Injured (ARBI) as a rehabilitation volunteer; she runs regular BCI workshops for Minds in Motion Youth STEM Programs and Power to Choose Indigenous Youth STEM Programs; and she is part of the Alberta Indigenous Mentorship in Health Innovation (AIM-HI) Network. She is the Social Director for the HBITO and is actively involved with the Innovation4Health and NeuroNexus Health Hack Competitions, having been the Co-Director of Operations for the past year. As NeuroNexus has recently expanded to be a province-wide competition, she has taken on a new role as the Director of Challenge Recruitment. As an Indigenous student, with Saulteaux Ojibwe heritage, Kelly is passionate about promoting Indigenous health and well being. 

Kelly is funded by the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute. She is also a recent recipient of the Alberta Graduate Excellence Scholarship for Indigenous students. She is an avid traveller, with the goal of visiting at least one new country each year. In the winter months, she enjoys heading to the mountains to snowboard.

About Samantha Baglot

Samantha Baglot completed a master’s degree in Neuroscience from the University of British Columbia (UBC) in April 2018 and is currently completing a PhD in Neuroscience from the University of Calgary (UCalgary). Broadly, her research focuses on the effects of prenatal cannabis exposure. Recent estimates suggest that 10-20% of women use cannabis during pregnancy, however we know very little about the effects of cannabis exposure on the developing brain. Baglot's’s research focuses on maternal-fetal transmission and the effects of cannabis on development of the endocrine and immune systems.

Baglot is extremely passionate about science advocacy and outreach. During her time at UBC, she was the Vice President of Outreach for the Neuroscience Graduate Student Association, was a volunteer with the Centre for Excellence in Indigenous Health, and was a teaching assistant. Since moving to UCalgary, she has been involved as a Scholarship Mentor, a volunteer at the Calgary Brain Bee, is on the organizing team for NeuroNexus and Innovation 4 Health, and is the Co-Director of Outreach for the HBITO. She is also the lead project organizer for a science-art project called Neurohistory Cartoons. As a person of Métis heritage Sam is extremely passionate about initiatives focusing on Indigenous health.

Baglot is a recipient of many research fellowships and awards, including the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship. Outside of research and science outreach, she holds a second-degree Black Belt in Karate and enjoys cycling, hiking, and skiing.