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Fort McPherson family starts suicide helpline after tragedy

A submitted photo of Shaeniel Kay
A submitted photo of Shaeniel Kay.

This report covers issues related to suicide. Suicidal thoughts and behaviours can be reduced with mental health support and treatment, and are not weaknesses or flaws. Details of where to go for help in the NWT are included in this article.

A Fort McPherson family is starting a community-run suicide helpline – which already has more than 20 volunteers – after losing 16-year-old Shaeniel Kay on May 10. 

“We suffered a tremendous loss. It affected everyone and came as a huge shock,” said Deborah Peterson, who helped found the project. Shaeniel was her cousin’s daughter.

“When a situation like this happens, people raise awareness for the first while and then stop. We don’t want the awareness to stop.”



Peterson credits Shaeniel’s mom, Robilee Koe, with the idea that their family could be there for other youth in the community who might need someone to talk to.

“We wanted to be there for our youth and our people, because lives matter. We experienced the heartbreak and the loss,” said Peterson.

The death of the teenager has affected the entire community, which has a population of around 700 people.

Shaeniel leaves behind a huge family, including the Koe, Kay, Neyando, and Blake families. She will be missed by her parents, Robilee Koe and Michael Neyando, and her younger sister and brother. She was described as being beautiful, smart, and always smiling.



“After the celebration of life ceremony held in [Fort] McPherson, she was laid to rest and there was really no awareness mentioned of what happened to our Shae,” said Peterson.

So Koe, Shaeniel’s mom, went to the local radio station with a few family members to share her story and talk about suicide prevention. The family is now in the early stages of starting a youth support group.

“Each one of them spoke from their hearts,” said Peterson, “and wanted everyone to know that, as a family, we want to help people by making awareness – and to be there 24/7 if anyone should be hurting, grieving, suffering with depression, or feeling alone.”

This report continues below the following information.

Who can help in the NWT?

The NWT Help Line is available 24/7. Call 1-800-661-0844.

Kid’s Help Phone is available 24/7 for young people. To talk to someone you can call 1-800-668-6868, use live chat at, or text 686868.

You can also reach out to a friend, family member, or someone you trust, contact your local Community Counselling Program for support, or get help from RCMP or emergency units of local hospitals and health centres.

Phone numbers for the community members mentioned in this report are available at the bottom of the article.

All services are free of charge and confidential. Read more: Where to get help in the NWT

Peterson said the family was open to suggestions and support. The two-hour radio program was broadcast live to Facebook where, Peterson said, family members were overwhelmed with the response from people touched by their story.

Following the broadcast, many members of the family posted their phone numbers on Facebook and said they were there to listen if anyone needed to talk.



The list of eight people quickly grew and, by Sunday, had been shared 180 times. There are now more than 20 people offering support to anyone who needs them.

“We had messages of people who were inspired by how our family turned our tragic loss to wanting to help anyone who needs help,” said Peterson. “People started messaging and commenting on the post with their numbers. People that I haven’t ever met, and it was just amazing! It was heartwarming to know that all these people care, too.

“We never want anyone to go through what we are going through and the aftermath of what we are left with: questions, shock, grief, and how we loved our girl so much and never thought we’d ever go through this.”

Motivation and comfort

Peterson said Koe was trying to get help for her daughter for the past five years.

“Most times she’d hear that Shaeniel has to want to talk or want help – but we are not allowing that to happen any more, because this is where intervention can take place,” said Peterson.

“We want anyone who needs our help to come to us … and we are willing to listen, hear them out, and find help that they need.”

She said her family has been “just floored” by the response from their community and strangers alike.

“It gives us more motivation, it gives us comfort knowing people are 100 percent behind us on this,” she said.



Diddoh Peterson, another cousin of Robilee, echoed Deborah.

“We don’t want another family to feel the pain that we felt,” said Diddoh, adding that it feels like they are making a difference already given the response from their community and online.

“All of our doors are open for the youth to come if they need us, if they want to come and hang out, if they just want to be here so they could feel safe.

“Our doors are always open. And our phone numbers are there. So reach out to us when you need help.”

Now, the post has grown beyond the community itself – there are people in Fort McPherson, Inuvik, Yellowknife, and the Yukon on the list.

The family is working on getting a local youth group up and running, and looking at how helpline volunteers can be trained.

Below is the list of volunteers and their communities as published by the family.

A screengrab of the helpline phone numbers.