One year after
a suicide crisis made national headlines, the remote community's
young people are fighting back
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 was sent from the fly-in-only community on James Bay
to spend 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 Sudbury to have her stomach pumped,
staying two weeks for more counselling.
"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.
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."
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
?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 Sarah Wiebe, a professor
at the University of Victoria, as part of "a larger collaboration
with Indigenous communities through mixed-media storytelling," she
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 University of Victoria
master's student Kleverson Peruzzo. Since November, Keisha has been
responsible for running the project in Attawapiskat, as the community
research assistant. 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,"
he 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
One such younger community member is 15-year-old Janelle Nakogee.
She participates in the Youth Committee with Keisha, and she struggles
with anxiety. Sipping a hot chocolate, she recounts how she believes
the suicide crisis started in October 2015, after the death of Sheridan
Hookimaw. Hookimaw was a bright 14-year-old who had hanged herself
near a ravine close to the community. It shocked everyone, including
Janelle, who had recently spent time with the girl.
"We think [Sheridan] 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.
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
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.
At more than six-foot-two, Jack towers over the others as he
speaks at a Youth Committee meeting about such outsider commentary
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
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.
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
"There are some things that feel like walls that I need to break
through," says Nadine Tookate.
"I have this 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
"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
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."
American and Indigenous Studies Association
The premiere international & interdisciplinary professional
organization for scholars, graduate students, independent researchers,
and community members interested in all aspects of Indigenous Studies.
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
This article was reported as a collaborative piece, aligned
with the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
for reporting in Indigenous communities.