A 13-year-old beauty queen from a central Alberta First Nation is raising awareness about youth suicide after the death of her best friend.
Shareena Ermineskin, from the Montana Band in Maskwacis, had originally wanted to enter the Miss Teenage Central Alberta pageant in 2017, with Sapphirra Rabbit by her side.
But Sapphirra took her own life 10 months ago, before the two girls got the chance.
This year, with the platform of raising suicide awareness, Shareena signed up for the competition alone, in her friend’s honour.
“My best friend committed suicide last May,” she said, repeating to CBC what she told the judges on stage March 18 at the Coast Plaza Hotel in Calgary, before she was crowned the winner.
“I want to prevent this from happening to anyone else.”
Shareena grew up on the reserve with her parents and siblings, doing “normal kid things.” She said embracing traditional cultural activities, such as sweats and powwows, was a big part of her upbringing.
She learned her first dance, jingle, in 2014, when she was nine years old.
That was the year she met Sapphirra.
“We were always together,” said Shareena, who even moved in with her best friend’s family for a while.
Shareena described her friend as a funny, amazing, “really, really pretty” person.
“She helped me through a lot,” she said, teardrops rolling down her face “She made me feel happy.”
Sapphirra’s mother, Carla Rabbit, said the fact that Shareena went ahead with the pageant “means the world.”
“I’m glad that she decided to turn her depression around and make something … out of all this,” Carla Rabbit said of Shareena .
“Their friendship was really true friendship, and Shareena supporting her friend by doing what she wanted to do and by spreading the awareness of suicide.That she’s living through her, living for her, by doing the things she wanted to do.”
Suicide ‘a big problem’
Shareena, who is in Grade 8 at Meskanhk Ka-Nipa-Wit School, wants to be a nurse. She now lives with her mother, her cousin and her aunt, Katherine Swampy.
Shareena said Swampy has been a big support to her, particularly over the past year and during the pageant.
Swampy travelled to Calgary with Shareena to watch her compete in Miss Teenage Central Alberta.
“It’s more than looks when it comes to Shareena,” Swampy said of her niece.
“It’s important, because of her platform, because of what she’s doing it for. She wasn’t just going there to look pretty, she was going there to have a voice.”
Swampy, who is also a band councillor, said youth suicide is prevalent in the community.
She is critical of how higher levels of government respond to concerns from reserves that are grappling with high rates of suicide.
“It’s a big problem. I have no idea how else to say that,” said Swampy, who said she gets calls from the hospital and schools, sometimes from parents or even youth themselves, who need someone to talk to.
She’s not a counsellor, but said she listens.
“I think for the longest time, a lot of our youth have been somewhat ignored,” Swampy said. “Listening to what they have to say makes a really big difference in their lives.”
Shareena will travel to Toronto this summer to compete at the national level of the pageant.
Based on the reaction of the audience and judges when Shareena delivered her platform in Calgary, Swampy said, she expects her niece will raise awareness in Toronto as well.
“They really emphasized that what she’s doing is important,” Swampy said of people in Calgary. “They were blown away.”
To Shareena, who has never been to Toronto before, sharing her platform with the audience and judges there is the most important part.
“They should know that it’s a really big problem and I’m just trying to raise awareness for it,” Shareena said of youth suicide.
Sapphirra’s mother said she’s encouraged by the courage her daughter’s best friend has shown.
“The day we buried her, I had talked to all her friends and given them hugs and told them to live for her, do all the things that she’d wanted to do,” Rabbit said.
“She had the courage to stand up in front of a lot of people… to create the awareness that there is a lot of young suicides in our community, not just our community, but all over the place,” Rabbit said.