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In Pikangikum, gas sniffing is rampant and young people are taking their own lives at a shocking rate.
A feature report by Martin Patriquin. By Martin Patriquin March 30, Update, Sept. The APTN report is here. Randy Keeper is sick of building coffins. He remembers the last ones, though. They were in December. The dreams started a couple of weeks after that. Then he wakes up. I get nervous, shaky. Keeper is in high demand. Pikangikum, a fly-in reserve located about km northeast of Winnipeg, is a place constantly haunted by the spectre of suicide. Over nearly four decades, the people of Pikangikum have seen dozens upon dozens of their friends and family members take their own lives.
Last year, six people from the Ojibwa First Nations community killed themselves in as many weeks. In Married women looking to date in Pikangikum First Nation, the community of roughly 2, had a suicide rate equivalent to per ,—nearly 20 times that of Canada, and far and away the highest in the world.
It has been so for 20 nearly uninterrupted years. The lack of adequate housing in the frigid temperatures, followed by an acrimonious funding fight with the federal government, has kept the James Bay reserve of 1, in the public eye for months—a rare feat when it comes to native issues.
Separated by km of northern Ontario wilderness, Attawapiskat and Pikangikum both suffer from a raft of structural and social problems: lack of housing and running water, addiction and poverty. Yet a glance at the s suggests Pikangikum is worse off—much worse. Consider how only two students graduated from high school last year. And consider the suicides, which have taken 96 lives—the vast majority of them young—in 20 years. And yet there is a strange kind of optimism in Pikangikum these days. For all of its troubles and after 14 years of negotiationsPikangikum is where Whitefeather, a Canadian First Nations-owned company, will receive a licence to harvest the roughly 1.
Evenings are busy in Pikangikum. Families drive to and from the Northern Store, the only official place to buy anything, mostly in big, lumbering pick-up trucks. The view along the way is breathless: a brilliant sun dips toward a tree-topped horizon, lighting up the sky and reflecting off snow-covered Pikangikum Lake. Kids play hockey on a patch of cleared ice, and vehicles zoom off the ice road toward the town of Red Lake, about km away.
Within 90 seconds, the rail-thin man in knee-high insulated boots is telling me unprompted how he lost his wife, a girlfriend and his boy to suicide. He was a carpenter like me, always used to steal my nails. Then Jerry turns to me and smiles. Crosses draped with necklaces, caps, sneakers and other personal effects of the departed peek out of the snow. The ubiquity of these sites is a relatively new phenomenon, however. Three people killed themselves inand another three in There were eight inand a total of 27 between and At that time, British sociologist Colin Samson, reflecting on these last suicides, said Pikangikum likely has the highest suicide rate in the world.
The school and Northern Store closed. A federal court later found that Nault had abused his powers. One thing was consistent across them all: they all died at the end of a rope. And yet Quill has a fierce attachment to this place, and, like many of the students I met, would never contemplate leaving, regardless of its miseries. On July 15,a pick-up truck flipped on Nungesser Road in Pikangikum, killing year-old Kevin Suggashie, a community organizer popular with many Pikangikum youth, and his wife, Ibena.
That night, after 16 suicide-free months, a year-old girl killed herself; another year-old girl did the same 20 days later. In the six weeks following that, two women and two men took their own lives. The belief that such nefarious spirits—Windigos, as they are known in Ojibwa—roam northwestern Ontario is rooted in its history.
Nevertheless, the kindly year-old Pikangikum elder says his brother David, a former chief, felt a change blow into the community in the late s. Welfare also came in. As the anthropologist R. It was convenient to spend more time at the centre than travel back and forth from the store to trapping grounds. Red Bull costs about the same as bottled water, and the cans litter the reserve. The sniffers are everywhere and nowhere. I saw a group of girls stumble out of the forest and onto Airport Road in the late afternoon, dressed as young girls do: tight pants, tippy heeled boots, makeup.
They all cradled white bags full of brown liquid as they walked, and darted off into the forest again when they saw me. As it evaporates it gets darker. They are the reason many park their trucks with the fuel cap as close to their houses as possible.
Pikangikum has been a dry community since a bylaw. Bootleggers risk having their vehicles impounded for bringing alcohol to the reserve because it is such a profitable business: 26 oz. Some others brew their own hooch. A popular recipe calls for a mixture of Tang, ketchup, raisins, yeast and water to sit in a warm dark place for 28 days. Dragged from the closet, the brew tastes like sweet, over-fermented beer.
During the winter, when temperatures regularly fall belowsniffers usually hole up in a house to sniff and drink. One Friday night, Hank and I approached once such spot, a graffiti-strewn clapboard shack along Airport Road, and knocked on the window.
A girl who looked to be in her early 20s pulled back the curtain and cracked it open. The smell of gas floated into the night air. She was in there with a bunch of her friends, she said. After a couple of minutes trying to negotiate his way into the house, the girl started screaming at Hank in Ojibwa. In Ojibwa, sniffers are known as ohmeenuhgeegahg—a person going around to take a sniff. They are arguably the most obvious of human distress in Pikangikum, and are treated with a mix of reation and disdain in the community.
Chasing the high, which some liken to pot, is intergenerational, something I saw when visiting the home of Juliet Turtle and Charlie Strang, who lost five of their 12 children to suicide. On the day I was there, a young girl was sniffing in the outhouse not 30 feet away.
When she saw me she dashed into the house. We were meant to speak, but Charlie came to the door in a rage. Neither he nor Juliet, he said, wanted to talk. Last year, he struggled to keep one of his sons, Kilmer, from the habit. They feel rejected. In their tiny corner of the band office, there are eight filing cabinet drawers full of open solvent abuse cases.
The nightly youth patrol, which Kevin Suggashie helped organize inwas abruptly cancelled last fall, after receiving threats from solvent abusers. Sniffers are usually sent to one of four treatment houses in Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In-community treatment is limited to a day group therapy excursion to a cabin across Lake Pikangikum that only recently started up again after a hiatus of several years. Somewhere between 95 and per cent of the kids who take the in-community program end up sniffing again, according to the report. As for the police, they turn a blind eye, Hanks says.
And so the cycle continues every night. Hank and I walk through Squirrel Rock, a neighbourhood jutting out into Lake Married women looking to date in Pikangikum First Nation to the east of the band office. He says sniffers will usually start scouring for gas once the sun goes down. The gas pump at the Northern Store has been broken into more times than anyone can remember.
Now they take it in through the mouth.
More intense. Atwe find a sniffer on the back porch of a house overlooking the lake. When I ask to take his picture he raises his bag of gas in the air, toasting the camera. Later, Hank takes me to a cliff overlooking the lake where his three brothers are buried. A passenger flying north from Sioux Lookout will see a patchwork frenzy of clear-cuts that come to an abrupt end about 50 km south of Pikangikum.
As the lack of clear-cuts shows, these 1. Inthen-chief Louie Quill began a process that would, 16 years later, culminate in Whitefeather, the Pikangikum-owned corporation on the cusp of harvesting the lumber in its own territory.
Sitting in the deated map room, cramped with humming computers and an industrial printer, Paddy Peters and his uncle Gideon, an elder, explain why the community decided to log its ancestral lands—something unthinkable a generation ago. There are potentially permanent jobs associated with the project, a godsend in a community with an unemployment rate around 90 per cent. Importantly, the new jobs will involve training.
Education remains by far the most effective antidote to suicide, yet the very act of going to school is often difficult. They are plastered with graffiti on the outside, but the classrooms are clean and well-lit. Students file into class, many wearing headphones and fiddling with MP3 players, with a sulking indifference seemingly patented by Grade 9 students worldwide. At first blush, it could be a classroom anywhere.
But one of the first things new teachers learn to deal with is the long, uncomfortable silences following a question to the class.
Everything changes when they get a piece of paper in front of them. Freed from having to speak, the students write frankly about their community. Of the 31 students I asked, 24 said drinking, sniffing and suicide were the biggest problems. All told, high school students in Pikangikum have lost a total of Aspergillus, an airborne fungus, sent three high school teachers home—and one to the operating table for major sinus surgery. Teacher Christyne Horvath, a petite year-old from Corunna, Ont. Her Learning Strategies class had 40 kids at the beginning of the year; on the day I visited, there were Of the 15 family names in Pikangikum, only seven have held the position of chief since Pikangikum became a separate band in Some say your last name also plays a role getting a new house.
Pikangikum requires roughly new houses to accommodate the current population. The band council is hoping for 20 this year—and Philip Suggashie thinks he knows who is going to get them. Suggashie, his wife Kay and 11 children and grandchildren live in a by foot shack on Lake Pikangikum. The windows are cracked and there are holes in the bare drywall. Still, former chief Gordon Peters agrees with Philip. Five years on, nothing has happened.
Kids like that are going to grow up not knowing right from wrong. His office is in the process of purchasing a piece of land 35 km outside of the community. Billy Joe hopes this will keep more coffins from going into the ground; like everyone else in this corner of the world, he knows there are far too many there already.
email: [email protected] - phone:(462) 435-4623 x 4546
Dr. Lori Chambers