A youth-driven movement remakes Attawapiskat

One year after a suicide crisis made national headlines, the remote community’s young people are fighting back

(Jack Linklater Jr)

(Jack Linklater Jr)

Keisha PaulMartin’s first name means “joy,” but her early teens were anything but happy in Attawapiskat, the remote Ontario First Nation that drew national attention with its mass youth suicide attempt in April 2016.

When she was 13, in 2010, Keisha tried to take her own life. Her older sister found her in the bathroom after she had slit her wrists. She spent three weeks in a Sudbury hospital, where she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Keisha was placed on an anti-anxiety medication and sent home.

She used the same medication a month later to attempt suicide again, so she was sent back to the hospital to have her stomach pumped, staying two weeks for more counselling.

READ MORE: Attawapiskat: Re-examining a community through photos

“I was drinking a lot, doing drugs, not around good people,” says Keisha, alternating between making eye contact and looking at the wall in her family’s den in the James Bay-area community. “It was hard and I wouldn’t listen to my mom and dad. I wouldn’t come home, and I wouldn’t tell anyone what I was going through.” She began seeing a psychiatrist and now has a more positive group of friends. She says she hasn’t self-harmed in seven years.

Besides causing immense sadness in Attawapiskat, last year’s suicide crisis reminded Keisha of her own struggles with mental illness. But that turned into a call to action for her and other young people, who quickly helped launched two major youth initiatives in the community: the Reimagining Attawapiskat project and the Pahsahwaytagwan “Sounding Echo” Youth Committee.

The youth of Attawapiskat, home to Mushkegowuk Cree people, have banded together as never before, challenging the narrative of hopelessness in northern Indigenous communities—a narrative as endemic as the suicides themselves.

Big Canoe. (Geraldine Mattinas)

Big Canoe. (Geraldine Mattinas)

Last April, a state of emergency was declared in Attawapiskat by then-chief Bruce Shisheesh after 11 suicide attempts in 24 hours. There had been 40 suicide attempts among adolescents over two months, and 101 since the previous September in the community of 2,000. Seven of these attempts were made by kids under 14, and 43 involved people under 25.

The reaction was immediate: politicians flew up, followed by mental health crisis workers, and eventually big political promises were made about improving the well-being of Attawapiskat’s youth. The Ontario government earmarked $2 million towards “long-term solutions to prevent suicides.”

Attawapiskat’s current Chief, Ignace Gull, contends that the government money led to a largely uncoordinated response from mental health workers. “There was a lot of confusion when the mental health workers arrived—they didn’t know much about the community or way of life, the culture, the language. They came here for 30 days and it cost $1.5 million over two months.”

RELATED: The true tragedy of Attawapiskat

The approach to dealing with Indigenous youth suicide needs to be revisited, argues Dr. Christopher Mushquash, a psychology professor and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Mental Health and Addiction at Lakehead University. “When a young person is in crisis, speaking to someone in that moment is helpful, but we also need to … look at what leads people to believe suicide is an option.” Youth-led projects could be a significant part of this solution, he adds.

Reimagining Attawapiskat was conceived in June 2015 as an art and photography-based research project by Keisha during her high school art class. Sarah Wiebe, a professor at the University of Victoria, helped support the website portion of the project as part of “a larger collaboration with Indigenous communities through mixed-media storytelling,” she says.

Its aims include revisiting how media portray communities during crises and encouraging youth to become agents of change. Initially, senior art students at Attawapiskat’s Vezina Secondary School participated by submitting their own “postcards”—photos with captions. “We . . . were being asked to take photos that meant a lot to us, and to write captions to share with others across Canada about what life was like up here,” says Keisha.

Last October, the project added a video component and offered a month-long workshop in photography led by Victoria. B.C.-based photographer Kleverson Peruzzo. Keisha has been responsible for running the project in Attawapiskat, as one of the main community research assistants. She has even more ideas—including poems, short stories and more video in the project.

“To me, the goal is for youth to get their voices out there so they are heard,” says Keisha. “Right now, I hope to gather more photos and stories for Canada’s 150th—and explore what it means to live in Attawapiskat when our community and people are much older than 150.”

She also believes it will provide an alternative, more authentic take on Indigenous issues. “The media that came last spring just showed the bad parts—it’s always a housing crisis, suicide crisis . . . all just crises,” Keisha says. “The whole world thinks we’re just this sad pit of despair, but there are good things here.”

Now, more than 20 youth are actively involved in the Reimagining project, which pleases Mandy Alves, the art teacher at Vezina Secondary. “The media tends to fuel this idea of an ‘Indian problem’ when these situations happen, without looking to see it’s actually a ‘settler problem’—a result of colonialization and residential schools,” she says. “Because Reimagining is owned by this community of youth, they can use it to tell new stories, their own stories.”

Keisha chooses carefully when to disclose her own experience with despair. “I try to share my story, but it’s tough because I don’t want to trigger [people]. I tell the younger ones that I know a little something about what they are going through, but that it’s different for everybody, it will always get better after time and effort . . . and they can get through anything if they put their mind to it.”

One such younger community member is 15-year-old Janelle Nakogee. She participates in the Youth Committee with Keisha. Sipping a hot chocolate, she recounts how she believes the suicide crisis started in October 2015, after the death of  a bright 14-year-old girl. It shocked everyone, including Janelle.

“We think she was bullied. In school and maybe online. I think that some of her friends then thought, ‘If she can do it, I can too,’” Janelle says. In the months that followed, many more would attempt suicide, something Janelle thinks may be related to feeling neglected at home. “Most kids around here just want attention or love. They feel lonely, and some parents just let their kids do anything—literally anything.”

Attawapiskat is a dry community, but alcohol and drugs do make their way in, and can make things difficult for families and young people. Janelle says that in her case, having strict parents has helped. “My mother . . . tells me it’s important to have a healthy home, and many kids don’t have that here,” she says.

(Jack Linklater Jr)

(Jack Linklater Jr)

The Youth Committee was formally founded last April, a few days after the state of emergency was declared. The goal was to create more youth-centred activities and build a sense of community. It has held a spirit camp (which included traditional ceremonies), put on movie nights, and organized coffeehouses with live music, powwows, winter carnivals, outdoor skating and a December dance gala.

One of the first events was a two-day suicide awareness walk, led by 17-year-old Jack Linklater Jr. “After the suicide attempts started, I realized we needed to take this seriously,” he says. “So I had an idea with my friend in Fort Albany [a neighbouring reserve] to walk from Attawapiskat to Kashechewan [another reserve] and Willow Creek—which is the halfway point in the winter road—to start these important conversations.” The walk took two days in -25 weather.

Jack recalls that what followed the crisis—the influx of journalists—was unexpected, and in most cases unwanted. “The media got it wrong, by telling the world how the community is when they don’t really know.” So he has made it a priority to participate in alternative narratives such as Reimagining Attawapiskat, producing photos and being a core part of the video team last year, all while also serving as a research assistant with Keisha.

At more than six-foot-two, Jack towers over the others as he speaks after a Youth Committee meeting about such outsider commentary as Jean Chrétien’s infamous remark that “people have to move sometimes” from northern communities like Attawapiskat. “They don’t know how it’s home to us,” he says, “our families, ancestors, animals and landscape.”

Chief Gull committed himself to addressing the issues faced by local youth when he was elected last August. “My stepfather used to say, ‘Suicide is a disease that spreads like measles or influenza if you aren’t careful,’” Gull says. The band council is planning a new youth centre, and is determined to get it right by “consulting with the youth to ask what they want. They need to feel pride and ownership in the building.” He notes that a previous youth centre in the 1990s was neglected and was eventually used for housing.

"After my little cousin's burial, he really liked balloons so his mom though it'd be nice to send some up for him" (Keisha PaulMartin)

“After my little cousin’s burial, he really liked balloons so his mom though it’d be nice to send some up for him” (Keisha PaulMartin)

While Keisha, Janelle and Jack eagerly anticipate the new youth centre and are taking an active role in planning it, they all agree that some of the barriers to community health—especially the influx of alcohol and drugs, as well as a lack of housing—can be overwhelming. These are issues a youth centre alone won’t fix.

“There are some things that feel like walls that I need to break through,” says Nadine Tookate.

“I have this [ink] tattoo of four dots which represent walls, and one dot in the middle which represents me.” Nadine believes she will transcend these walls, and hopes to become a paramedic or a nurse, inspired by the work they have done for youth in the community.

For some, like Janelle, these challenges, especially the emotional ones, can be overcome by reconnecting with the land. “I think of nature like a mother—she’s there to help me forget the bad stuff. In the summer I like walking along the rapids. The water never stops, it keeps moving on. It reminds me I should keep moving on and always move forward…to never give up.”

Keisha believes supporting the hopes of Attawapiskat’s youth is crucial to overcoming hardship and gaining resilience.

But some youth in the community are loath to really invest in their aspirations.

“Some youth talk about their dreams, but a lot don’t because they are afraid to be laughed at or judged,” she says. “I like engineering a lot, so that’s my dream, and I share that, so maybe it will inspire others to share.” Keisha notes that she is looking into programs in Sudbury.

Since the state of emergency last April, the number of suicide attempts among youth has decreased, according to many in the community. But the local Weeneebayko Area Health Authority says those figures have not yet been calculated.

Meanwhile, policy-makers are taking note. Canada’s Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Carolyn Bennett, recently invited the Youth Committee to participate in conversations about mental health. And the Reimagining Attawapiskat project was accepted as a presenter at the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association conference in Vancouver in June. Jack and Keisha are planning to attend.

But Keisha’s main focus remains helping youth in her community to not only survive, but to thrive, “to let these kids know they are important and we need them here. That they are not useless and they can do things with their life.”

Chelsea Jane Edwards is a public speaker and youth leader from Attawapiskat, and recently completed her post-secondary education in policing. She is also the co-founder of Shannen’s Dream, which advocates for equitable education funding for First Nations children.

Dr. Amitha Kalaichandran is a pediatrics resident physician with a background in global health epidemiology, and a Fellow in Global Journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

This article was reported as a collaborative piece, aligned with the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for reporting in Indigenous communities.

This post has been updated. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified who started the Reimagining Attawapiskat project.

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