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Reviving hope in northern communities struggling with youth suicide

When a child attempts or commits suicide, a little part of all of us dies. We rush to help, we want to do something, we want to show we care.

In 2016, we all were rocked by events in Attawapiskat and I was haunted by this video, recorded by youth in the community. The video starts with news reports about "a community in crisis." Then lyrics begin that say, "you listen to the media but you don't see what I see." They go on to talk about strong, positive youth, their vision and the fact that they are walking for peace and looking for hope. It resonated because there is a critique and a story in that song that needed to be explored. What are we not hearing?

So, despite the fact that the students were out for summer break, and then winter break, and a series of delays on both sides, I persisted in trying to find out what the students and people who were part of making this video were trying to communicate. I wanted to try to find out more about what these particular youth in Attawapiskat wanted. 

The video came out of an arts workshop organized by DAREarts which, according to Executive Director Marilyn Field, "is a charity that brings the arts to underprivileged racialized children and youth as a way to give them a voice make them feel empowered to handle their life challenges."

DAREarts was incredibly accommodating, Marilyn took over an hour to respond to my questions and then put me in touch with Joseph Nakogee, one of the youth in the video who has gone on to help build a website called Reimagining Attawapiskat (from which the photos in this story are taken). I also interviewed Mandy Alves, the Attawapiskat school teacher, and Cathy Elliott, an artist who has been on dozens of DAREarts workshop teams in First Nations communities and was on the team in Attawapiskat. 

About DAREarts in First Nations Communities

Marilyn Field:  DAREarts works with all kinds of kids from all cultures.  However, in 2008, we began working in a Junior Rangers camp, which is put on by the army to give life skills to northern youth.  One of the elders there, from Webequie First Nation, asked if I would bring DAREarts into his community and then he went on to say that one of their youth had just, the week before, committed suicide -- "gone through the rope" as they say.

He also said that his 12-year-old daughter had the previous year committed suicide. It was just with a full heart I thought, "What can we possibly do that is going to help these kids and give them some of that sense of hope?"  

My answer could only be, "Sure, of course we will go and we will do what we can do."  I chose a number of artists, a few visual artists, one a photographer, a videographer and myself a musician and went up and with open hearts listened to the youth and said "Okay, the rest of Canada is waiting to hear your voice. What do you want to say?"

For the week with the kids, we had scheduled workshops for just two hours a day, from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Then we found that the kids were showing up again and coming back after school and staying until 10 p.m.  We were sending them home at the end of the night, saying, "Come on we have to get to sleep, if you don't!"

What we found that year, and every time since then, is every time we go and take art professionals and artists into the school at the invitation of community to work with the youth, it just inspires the youth. They feel their own sense of hope and just enjoy the possibilities that they are creating together.  Every year, in every community, that creation takes a different form whether it is song, puppet show, or black light theater, or a fashion show. 

It is about listening to what the kids themselves want to do, and then at the end of the week-long workshop they present to their communities, at a whole wonderful gathering on the Saturday after the week. People come out to see what their youth have done and then celebrate with a feast that they put on afterward. This creates a real sense of belonging and appreciation of who they are as a culture and for the kids, a belief that they can do anything, if they can do this together they can do anything. 

That is the general pattern of what’s been happening every year in each of the communities that have invited us, and for which we have the money to go.  There are a lot more communities that have invited us but we were not able to go because it costs about $20,000 CAD per community to do the whole week in their community, because of the remoteness and the costs of travel, cost of living and accommodation. 

Invitation to Attawapiskat

Joseph Nakogee: Last year in the spring, Attawapiskat was in the headlines.  People rushed in and were talking about the crisis but there wasn’t one picture about the beauty of this place. We wanted to show our communities, our homes, to talk about what we wanted to make our communities better instead of letting the media tell only the bad stuff.  This is our home they are talking about. 

Mandy Alves: This is a really beautiful place, I have traveled a lot and this is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.  They didn’t show any pictures of the beauty, did they? So the students at Vezina Secondary School contacted DAREarts to bring in artists to help the youth tell their story.

Marilyn Field:  As we all know Attawapiskat put out a call for help to Canada because their kids were on suicide watch.  When I say kids, I am talking not just teens but kids down to the age of nine. And as you know, Canada responded. Health workers, various professionals and emergency experts went in and worked with the community.

However, after all this happened we get a call from the kids through their teacher Mandy saying, from the kids, "Look nobody is talking to us. It is our problem and yet nobody is talking to us." They wanted their voice to come out and for us to help them have their voice. 

Again, we didn't know where the money was going to come from, so we reached out to our friends. Some donated Aeroplan points, Thunder Air donated some free airfare, TD music had donated musical instruments we used, like guitars.  Off the team went. 

Now, I didn’t go to save money but, I did send, first of all, a musician named Glenn Marais for one week.  He’s from South Africa originally and he is great, just gets out there and works with the kids to start writing what they wanted to say and working with them. The result became a song within a week. They also made a recording of it, all in one week.  

Then the next week I sent up two other musicians: Shelly Macdonald, who is Indigenous from the West Coast, and Cathy Elliott, who is from the Mi'kmaq First Nation and originally form the East Coast. Together they worked with the same and some different kids on making their song into a video. 

 

Takeaways

Marilyn Field: I think one things that resonated [was] that they didn’t want to talk about suicide. What they wanted to do was talk about the positive things in their life and to find the positive things in their lives. 

The land is very important to many young people, to see their land for the beauty that it has and being able to address that to other people and to us. To speak of how important their culture was to them, how important their own language was to them. In individual chats, young people might intimate some of the challenges that they have living with so many generations in their house and that they don’t have much privacy for themselves, and things like that. 

I think they realize, just intrinsically, the way from suicide and depression and drug abuse is by being positive, by having hope, by having goals, by having pride in who they are, and feeling like they have sense of future and of voice. I think they also felt a little like no one was listening to them, the band council was even not listening to them saying, "they are the youth what do they know." When strangers came in the community to help them, they didn't talk to the youth. 

They are still working out what their unified voice might say, but the first point is that they do want to have that voice, and be a part of the conversation about who they are.  Does that make sense to you?

Joseph Nakogee: I don't know how to change the world, or to change the community, and I don't have the right to speak for the community in terms of their needs. I don't think it is my place to say what it is we need in terms of support. 

Sometimes people want to come up, and they don't really want to see what it is like here, and they don't really want to actually help.  People who do actually want to help actually learn what we need, they want to help us succeed, and they want to make us do our own kind of thing and listen as we define what we want.

Mandy Alves:  I think that is really important what Joseph said, the people who come in who want to work towards this community succeeding and helping you to build what you want instead of defining the stuff for you. I mean what you want to do with your life is different from what I want to do with my life. You can be successful in anything you want to do, and I can be successful in what I want to do and make it completely different.

Cathy Elliott:  Whether you are Indigenous or a settler activist, I think the number one thing to do is listen. That's the big one, to really listen to the people that you're championing because they know, they know what's the right way to go, and then take their lead. I think that's the big one, you know.

Right now, in North America, there are a lot of things going on, so number one really listen because you're going to learn a heck of a lot more and you are going to be a greater help than if you just take your own ideas and just impose them on the events and the things we're all trying to do here.

One of the things that I have been saying lately is, the time for pretty words is over, it is time for a collective action. I mean everybody in Canada has to work together to make this work. It is going to take generations. It took generations to get us here, it is going to take generations to get us out of this mess that we're in. 

I know I am only reflecting what other people have said, but that is exactly how I feel. And that is from my heart to all of our supporters and people who are taking action.  Whe’lin, thank you, Miigwech, Masi Cho, thank you. Thank you so much, don’t stop, but before you take a step, reach out and ask and listen. Ask for guidance and listen and then take action based on real solid information

What remains, the future

Mandy Alves:  More recently, we had a film festival and art festival in the community to highlight the work of the youth, and all these videos and photos are on a website called Reimagining Attawapiskat. It is a forum for young people here to be able to put up their videos, photos and artwork.

The youth in the community really wanted a place where they could continue to show what Attawapiskat looks like to them. Therefore, Joseph and a few of his friends, who are really into making amazing videos, developed a place where they can post these videos if they choose to and to share them with people in the rest of the world that way.  

Finally, the people and the youth in these communities are being given a chance to tell their stories because, far too often, throughout history their story has been told for them. Usually it has been told falsely and inaccurately. Hopefully, the video, the website, all of this, should start to shed light on the stories of the people who are living here: how they see themselves, how they want to project themselves to the outside world, and how they want the outside world to see them. 

Joseph Nakogee: There are nine videos (youth digital stories) available now along with postcards or photos.  Not all the videos are up yet. The Internet here is not great too. It takes quite a while to upload anything, so the content is going up as fast as we can put it up.  

Marilyn Field: What can I say about what needs to be done in the future? First of all, we must provide more funding for schools, which is not sufficient now. I also think we need better training for the teachers who go up North. Teachers go up, willing to take an adventure with big hearts, but they must have special training and experience. I think that could make a big difference to the education to kids. 

I think the other thing they need to realize is that, in the North, the curriculum and how kids learn needs to be different from a traditional classroom where we work to educate kids outside of their communities.  

They need to provide technology to the schools and communities.  All of these communities need to have a better access to the online world, with websites and online learning. The internet connections are very poor. I know it is difficult because of the remoteness, but there are such things as satellites now. 

There need better infrastructure so that healthy food at a reasonable price is available. Of course, it can't just all be provided by government because that doesn't work. Most people want self-empowerment within the communities themselves. I think the government must to look for examples in Indigenous communities that have made this success for themselves and encourage other communities to follow those patterns. However, there are a lot of infrastructural needs which need to be addressed.

----

Marilyn Field’s story

Marilyn Field:  My story begins, I always say, when I was two, because my mother died at that time from breast cancer. The only way that I got to know her and feel her as I was growing up, was by playing her violin and her piano, seeing her drawings, the art she had made, and fashion that she had helped with. 

I used to play the piano and I felt she was always behind my shoulder playing with me.  As a little girl, I would go out in the summertime to the farmer's field that was across the street at night, when everyone was asleep and I would dance with my mother. The power that the arts have on our lives was something that I already felt as a little girl.

Growing up, I became a teacher and while teaching in Toronto, in a lower socio-economic area, I taught the arts as well as other core subjects. The kids taught me how important the arts were. 

I would arrive at school, in the middle of winter, at 7:30 in the morning. There would already be a big gaggle of kids, with big smiles on their faces, just waiting to get inside. It was early, it was cold, but it didn’t matter because we were all going to be going inside and doing the choir or the band or making paintings.

They told me how much the arts were making a difference to their lives and how they now had hope. They told me realistically what was going on in their lives, but they were all excited because by accomplishing what they were accomplishing with art, they had hope to be whatever wanted ever be.

One boy told me, and he was so proud, that he wanted to be a plumber and he was going to find the way to get the education he needed be a plumber because of our work together.  It was just that sense of pride that was coming through them doing the arts. 

All of this taught me that I needed to leave the school environment and reach out, come up with ways to support kids to use the arts so they could use it more broadly. I needed to work outside of just one school.

A long story short, that was the impetus for beginning DAREarts.  DARE is the acronym for Discipline, Action, Responsibility and Excellence. Over 20 years we have reached over 200,000 kids. 

The youth who have worked with us say after DAREarts they’ve been "the best they’ve been in their lives," or that "DAREarts helped me to believe in myself before I believed in myself."  It is that kind of power. The kids use those as their pathway as they enter their life again feeling this power in it. 

Aside from the Indigenous program, we are working with non-Indigenous kids from all different cultures. They love this sense of empowerment. They love being told that they are excellent and then they are expected to be excellent and they rise to the occasion.  It’s very simple.

In our non-Indigenous programs, we work during school-time and we don’t take a whole classroom. In this type of program, we take two kids only out of a classroom. Many times, the schools that we work with choose the kids, and often they send us the bully or the kids who are bullied, and they’re all the same.

In the end, it’s the same. They are coping with something and they just need a new way to express themselves beyond the negative ways that found worked before. Like the simple way. It is all possible to change their behaviours [so that they] become good positive behaviours.

 

Cathy Elliott’s story

Marilyn Field: Where do I start and who do I tell you about?  Well one story that comes to mind, because we are talking about Indigenous artists, is Cathy Elliott. 

I met Cathy, when we ended up at the same performance. It was live theatre.  At the reception, I went up to her because she looked a little Aboriginal and I just been asked to come to Webiquie community. 

So, I approached her and asked her "Are you Aboriginal and are you an artist?" She responded yes to both questions, and so I asked her to come on by for tea. 

We had tea and she told me what she did and I told her what I did.  She is very talented in many ways, she has written plays, she has one-woman shows, including in the North, and she loves being on stage and she is good at that. She writes music, plays every music you can think about, loves to do art and she designs jewelry.  She is just a crazy, wonderful lady. 

When I told her about the Webiquie, she said she was interested but hesitant to teach because she was more of performer. So, I trained her on some teaching techniques, and she became part of the team, and we team taught for the first year along with the other artists. 

Since then she has been involved as part of the team for many other times going to the Northern Communities.  Her first thing that she goes towards is creating herself because she is so creative, so it is still a challenge for her to step back and bring it out of the kids and let the kids do the create. She loves the work and the kids love her, and they love this crazy, wonderful, caring environment that she and the kids create together.

Cathy Elliott:  They found me.  It was interesting because Marilyn was looking for an Indigenous artist to work with. So Marilyn came and asked me point blank, "are you Indigenous?" This was nine years ago. I had never been asked that before, it was a bit of a surprise for me. 

Then she said we need to talk, and so we had a chat.  We had tea and talked about my dreams and aspirations as an artist. Then she said "Well, can you help us build a program specifically for Indigenous kids and their community?" And boy and boy, we passed this back and forth and invited other people to give us their insights and their input and their wisdom.

The first project was with Webequie First Nation. Marilyn was working in a camp, a forest rangers camp. It was a military training camp for kids who were flown in from all over Ontario's north and given all sorts of skills, one of them was the arts.

It was really wonderful that the armed forces realized that the arts are important. Marilyn met an elder from Webequie who said you have to come to our community because we're in crisis right now. They were in crisis because they had had another suicide, so we were invited. We don't go into places unless we're invited. 

When I speak to the kids, I often talk to them about their language. You know, the Mi'gmagei, a lot of us lost our language and we are trying to get it back, we are working very hard to get it back. Many of the kids I work with still have it. There are still people walking around and talking in OjiCree, and Ojibway, and Cree. 

That's a strength there, and you've got to hold on to that. It's taking it away from despair and turning it into strength. With language, kids have got something that a lot of other kids don't have.

And you know, I got to tell ya, some of those kids from nine years ago in Ogoki First Nation and in Webequie, our first two communities, are grown up now. They're doing powwow.

Just now, here, just before I talked to you, there was a Monday morning circle, in the rotunda, in the lobby of the school. After that, they had a smudge. They smudged, this was something that wasn't being done nine years ago.

There is a huge difference that is happening, from the ground up.  I find that so gratifying because it is good to know that when we started nine years ago our instincts were good and we're still coming from a good place and we're all still going in a good way.

Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Photo Credit: Reimagining Attawapiskat

Video produced by students at Vezina Secondary School with cooperation from DAREarts

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