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No longer able to meet face to face amid the ongoing pandemic, a men’s support and empowerment group is logging onto the next best thing to continue providing what has proven to be a crucial service.

“It’s helped me realize I’m not all alone in all of this,” Ryan Veteri said of Men of the North. “Men are suffering with depression and anxiety and they’re not being treated. They’re not seeing counsellors and they’re feeling like they have to be in this all alone, all the time.”

Men of the North has helped La Ronge NAPA manager Ryan Veteri to cope with the loss of a close friend who died by suicide in 2019. Photograph courtesy of Ryan Veteri.

Men of the North is founded by Christopher Merasty. Part of the group’s mandate is to help build a healthy community by supporting positive masculinity, support and healing among men.

Veteri has been with the group since its early days.

“We’re trying to get rid of the stigma that as a man, you can’t cry, you can’t talk about stuff — buckle down, because this is what you do when you’re a man,” he said.

Before getting involved, Merasty said, participants didn’t realize just how common their issues were.

“A lot of these gentlemen come in with the mindset, ‘Nobody’s going through what I’m going through,’” he said. “Then they sit down at the table and they start listening to some of the stories that some of these gentlemen have and they go, ‘Oh wow, that guy’s going through what I’m going through.’”

Men of the North founder Christopher Merasty shifted focus to supporting the community during the pandemic. Here he is with donations for children made through relief funding. Merasty also works on the production team at Cameco's Cigar Lake uranium mine. Photograph courtesy of Christopher Merasty.

Since the pandemic hit, Men of the North has been focused on helping the community pull through. They worked with the Lac La Ronge Indian Band’s delivery service and then expanded into the surrounding communities as well, distributing COVID-19 relief in the area.

Realizing the pandemic would be a long-term issue, Men of the North moved to an online format through group Zoom meetings.

“Men are suffering with depression and anxiety and they’re not being treated. They’re not seeing counsellors and they’re feeling like they have to be in this all alone, all the time,” Ryan Veteri.

Merasty said moving regular meetings online has had its challenges — some people don’t have internet access, or a device to connect with. Those that do might not be as comfortable connecting through a screen.

“Before COVID, we had 15 strong men that knew each other like the back of their hand, that were comfortable talking to each other and bringing up any struggles or issues,” he said.

The group is making it work. And for those who can’t get online, the group has developed a network over the phone.

“Even today, if I phone up one of these guys and say I need somebody to talk to, they’ll drop whatever they’re doing and they’ll pick up the phone. ‘OK, let’s talk,’” Merasty said.

He said Men of the North will likely continue to use the online method once the pandemic is over for people who need to connect from a distance, to continue doing the crucial work the group does toward getting men to connect and share information.

“The key thing to remember about Men of the North is it’s a judgment-free zone,” said Dalton Rogers, who got involved with the group after moving to La Ronge, Sask., from Ontario last year.

Men of the North member Dalton Rogers works as a probation officer with La Ronge community corrections and is responsible for the community of Black Lake. Photograph courtesy of Dalton Rogers.

Rogers is a probation officer responsible for the community of Black Lake.

He attends the meetings on his own time, and said it helps him remember to take time for himself and stay connected with the community.

“You just have to show up ... We all slip. We all have bad days and that’s the key. If you’re having a bad day and you’re coping poorly and you’re beating yourself up mentally, it’s just good to have the group here to support you,” Rogers said.

He said the mutual-aid focus of the organization helps men feel more comfortable opening up with one another in a non-clinical environment, and feel more comfortable getting help when they do need it.

“While we do have mental-health professionals who participate, that’s not the aim. It’s to provide support and hopefully redirect people who are in quite dire situations to the right resources,” Rogers said.

Veteri said meeting Merasty and helping develop Men of the North brought him out of a dark place.

“I’ve been struggling with depression since summer of 2019. My friend Bryce (took his own life) on the highway by vehicle and that’s basically what pushed me over the edge,” Veteri said.

“By the time I got into the doctor's office, I was a complete mess. I couldn’t stop crying and I was laying in bed and it was nothing but sadness for Ryan.”

That’s when Veteri heard about Merasty’s initiative and decided to get involved and move his life forward in a positive way.

“I struggled with taking my life. I had to surrender my firearms and stuff like that. I am on medication and seeing a counsellor as well. I heard about the group and I’m all about checking things out ... and then I heard about Men of the North,” Veteri said.

Men of the North help with the Lac La Ronge Indian Band pandemic response effort. Photograph courtesy of Ryan Veteri.

Participants discuss issues around a chosen topic. During the pandemic, they have focused on isolation and feelings of uncertainty around employment or health.

“There’s a lot of people worried about keeping their jobs once we have pulled through this pandemic, and struggling with loneliness,” Merasty said.

In the future, and once participants have a strong foundation of trust, the hope is to address more difficult topics, such as the residential school system.

“These are topics that people need to talk about, but they don’t because it opens up a lot of wounds. So once we get the support in place, with addictions counsellors in the meeting and elders attending the meeting again, we’ll be able to touch on those areas,” Merasty said.

"Men of the North will continue moving forward... We will open as many doors as we possibly can to support and strengthen the men in our community today for a stronger tomorrow."

Men of the North is working on a website. In the meantime, they can be contacted through email at [email protected] or their Facebook page.

If you are or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, help is available at all hours. Support can be found at the Canada Suicide Prevention Service website. If in immediate danger you can call 9-1-1.

Michael Bramadat-Willcock/Local Journalism Initiative/Canada's National Observer