Canadian youth pushed to despair in poverty-stricken indigenous community

Housing and education needed by First Nations people


Sitting in the spotless kitchen of the 13-strong Turtle household in Pikangikum, a remote fly-in First Nations – Canadian indigenous people – settlement in northwestern Ontario, you discover that the effect of hot gushing water on the home needs no explanation.

Seven children scurry around; their smiling, freshly washed faces and wet hair say it all. Before the water, the children just didn’t get bathed that often, shrugs their aunt, Roberta Turtle.

They are healthier now, she says. They don’t get skin rashes anymore and don’t have to trek outside in freezing temperatures for water at one of the communities’ four standpipes, dotted between some 460 houses, home to upwards of 2,600 people.

In a province of 250,000 lakes, it’s hard to imagine that water and plumbing is lacking in about 400 homes in Pikangikum, affecting the ability to cook, clean and bathe. Not even Paddy Peters, the soft-spoken yet tenacious chief of the Ojibwe community – 1,400km northwest of Toronto – has running water in his three-bedroom home.

Water and sewers

“I have my outhouse that I go to every day, every night,” he says, adding that he shares the house with 12 family members. “The majority of my people don’t have running water or sewers. There were plans . . . but the government shelved them about 10 years ago.

“When I try to bring these projects back, every time I am told [by the government] there is no money,” the chief says.

The situation pushes many to despair. Three years ago, the tiny, once anonymous community, where winters can last from October to May with temperatures as low as minus 40, was flung into the national spotlight in Canada, not because of its infrastructural issues, but a spate of youth suicides.

A report (the Office of the Chief Coroner’s Death Review of the Youth Suicides at the Pikangikum First Nation 2006-2008) shocked Canadians. It found that Pikangikum was “severely deprived”, even when compared with other First Nations living on reservations.

“Pikangikum is an impoverished, isolated community where basic necessities of life are absent. Poverty, crowded substandard housing, gainful employment, food and water security are daily challenges,” it stated.

Most troubling was the solvent abuse problem it uncovered.

“In Pikangikum, young girls (8-10) self-reported that as many as 27 per cent had tried sniffing gasoline. Exact numbers are unknown, and it is estimated that there are as many as 300 solvent-abusers in the community,” the study found.

On a broader note, it pointed to the effect of colonialism, which dispossessed tribes of their traditional lands and forced them on to reserves. Children were sent to residential schools to “assimilate” them, destroying culture, language and family ties.

Proud community

Chief Peters himself is a residential school survivor (see panel above) who didn’t finish high school, though he started – not a common occurrence here. He is weary of all the bad press his proud community has had to endure since the report.

But he’s not interested in sugar-coating life in Pikangikum either. “We are still in the same situation as we were back then,” Peters says of the coroner’s study.

“We have yet to see improved conditions my people can feel happy about. We have our share of problems . . . but if people are living in conditions like I described, is it any wonder people abuse alcohol or sniff gas?”

Toronto-based engineer Bob White, who works in developing countries all over the world, felt compelled to help after reading the coroner’s harrowing report.

“It was devastating to read, but to see that the root cause was because of infrastructural issues, I thought, that’s something I can help with.”

He and others set up the Pikangikum Working Group and raised enough money, through religious congregations in southern Ontario, to install water and sewage systems in 10 homes last year, the Turtles among them.

Another engineer, Dave Steeves, in charge of fundraising for the group, educates people on what’s happening in their own province.

“Most people don’t even know what’s going on. The focus has always been outreach to other countries. But as you describe this situation, they recognise we have to clean up our own backyard, and that these are basics that have to be given to Canadians,” he says.

But there’s only so much work a small charity can do.

About 200 new homes are needed to ease chronic overcrowding; sometimes four generations share a modest abode. This year, seven were built.

And so the knock-on effects – suicide, alcohol and solvent-abuse – continue.

Solvent-abuse is pervasive in children and teens. Hundreds of teens sniff gas, and small children, mimicking older siblings, have been seen with bags over their faces. Of the deaths reviewed in the coroner’s report, the majority had been sniffing at the time.

Compounding matters, upwards of 500 children may not be attending school.

Despite these huge challenges, a wind of change is blowing. A community-led forestry initiative is set to provide many jobs in the future. Construction has begun on a federally funded $55 million school, and a police-led youth intervention programme is having great results.

Distressed youth

Seeing the distress of youth in Pikangikum, Supt Ron van Straalen, regional commander of the northwest region, realised police had to engage them in a meaningful way.

“We were seeing some huge tragedies . . . at times upwards of six kids pass away in a week. It’s a huge loss and devastating for everyone. We wanted to see what we could do, as police, to turn the tide here,” he says.

The result is Project Journey, an evidence-based substance-abuse programme based on a model for Cherokee youth, from New Mexico. “This is a radical change for policing, in fact it’s not policing and is usually delivered by social services,” says Supt van Straalen.

In place for almost a year, and funded by the government for four more, the programme is bringing about improvements. “We are seeing dramatic reductions in violent youth crime. We are on to something big here.

“It’s not a summer camp or a one-week programme, it’s 365 days a year. We are trying to give kids a normal childhood filled with ideas, and bring them back to school.”

Food as incentive

Melanie Doyle, principal of the Eenchokay Birchstick School, uses more overt tactics to entice students back to school: food and water.

“We work really hard to make a positive environment in the school. We give them breakfast, lunch . . . Food and water are big issues here.”

Her mission is to support those who complete high school to continue their education. At the moment, graduation rates are low. “I want the kids to go out of the community and continue their education and then come back and make Pikangikum stronger.”

Doyle laments the inequalities she sees – it’s a well-known fact in Canada that First Nations children do not get as much funding as the rest of the population, though they are most in need.

“I just want the kids to have an equal opportunity here, like the rest of the province. Students down in southern Ontario don’t have to think about food, water, clothing . . . It’s not an equal playing field.

“I think people [in the rest of Canada] are in denial about what’s going on. They don’t want to know about the problems here. This is like Africa in Ontario.”

For the chief and his people, it’s just home. “We love living on this land,” the chief says. “This is our homeland. We were born here. We will die here.”

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