Randy Keeper is sick of building coffins. A wiry fellow who looks younger than his 49 years, Keeper is proud of his job as a carpenter and crew leader, saying he’s built 25 houses from scratch over 17 years in Pikangikum, the reserve in northwestern Ontario where he has lived his whole life. But when it comes to the wooden boxes he builds for Pikangikum’s dead, he draws a blank. “I don’t count them,” he says from his daughter’s dining room table. He remembers the last ones, though. They were in December. “I had to make two in one day, one for an elder and one for a younger person.”
The dreams started a couple of weeks after that. In one, he’s lying face up in a freshly dug grave, watching as a coffin is slowly lowered toward him. He doesn’t know if there’s anyone inside, but he recognizes his handiwork: 100 lb. of plywood, treated pine and nails, a simple enough thing that takes him no more than 90 minutes to build. In the dream he’s alive but can’t move as it comes down on his chest, smothering him. Then he wakes up. “The elders told me to stop making them,” he says, “but I have no choice because I work for the band. I get nervous, shaky. Once the dreams happened I’d say yes out of respect for chief and council, but sometimes I don’t show up.”
Keeper is in high demand. Pikangikum, a fly-in reserve located about 300 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 2011, the community of roughly 2,400 had a suicide rate equivalent to 250 per 100,000—nearly 20 times that of Canada, and far and away the highest in the world. It has been so for 20 nearly uninterrupted years.
In recent months, the Attawapiskat reserve on James Bay served as a reminder of the deplorable conditions in many of Canada’s native communities. 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 1,800 in the public eye for months—a rare feat when it comes to native issues.
Separated by 500 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 numbers suggests Pikangikum is worse off—much worse. Consider how 80 per cent of its housing doesn’t have sewage pipes or running water; consider how the community of 2,400 had just over 3,600 lockups and nearly 5,000 calls for service to police last year. Consider how only two students graduated from high school last year. Consider how, as recently as 2008, fully 40 per cent of referrals to Tikinagan, northern Ontario’s First Nations childhood protection agency, were from Pikangikum. 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 negotiations), Pikangikum is where Whitefeather, a Canadian First Nations-owned company, will receive a licence to harvest the roughly 1.3 million hectares of the area’s surrounding forest—the first such project of its kind, according to the band and the federal government, with the local community reaping the benefits. Whitefeather is Pikangikum’s hope amidst its misery, a beacon in the suicide capital of the world.
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 100 km away. The air is so cold it’s dizzying.
I meet Jerry Strang on the 15-minute walk from the Northern Store to Pikangikum’s only hotel. 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. “I guess I got him mad,” Strang says. “He hung himself in the clubhouse he built. He was a carpenter like me, always used to steal my nails.” He’d like to meet someone else, but is afraid of the consequences. Then Jerry turns to me and smiles. “My sister says I’m cursed, you know?”
Death has long been part of Pikangikum’s landscape. The community’s dead are buried in the yards of family members, an Ojibwa tradition. 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. Though Pikangikum’s first reported suicide occurred in 1976, according to the 2002 documentary Back To Pikangikum, it remained a relatively isolated practice until the advent of gas sniffing in the 1990s. Three people killed themselves in 1992, and another three in 1993. There were eight in 1994, and a total of 27 between 1995 and 2000. At that time, British sociologist Colin Samson, reflecting on these last suicides, said Pikangikum likely has the highest suicide rate in the world. In April 2001, following several more suicide deaths, then Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault appointed a third-party manager to oversee the band’s finances for what he described as “social reasons,” suggesting the band wasn’t able to handle its finances and the rash of suicides on the reserve. The band wouldn’t comply with the government, which in turn withheld funding. The school and Northern Store closed. A federal court later found that Nault had abused his powers.
An Ontario “death review,” undertaken by the province’s coroner’s office after 16 youth took their own lives between 2006 and 2008, noted similarities in these deaths. They happened in so-called “clusters”; most of the victims were under the age of 15; none had sought professional help in the month leading up to their deaths; most had family lives rife with substance and domestic abuse; few went to school. One thing was consistent across them all: they all died at the end of a rope. Almost all of them were solvent abusers, and had suffered some sort of calamity, like a friend’s suicide, or something as seemingly benign as a breakup. “I think most of the people who have committed suicide have been dumped by boyfriends or girlfriends,” Shanice Quill, a quiet 17-year-old with glasses and a shy gaze, writes in a note to me on the day I sit in on a class. (She’s that shy.) 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. “I would never move to the city because I would miss my family,” she writes. “I like the fresh air here because I can breathe and whenever I’m in the city like Winnipeg I feel as if I want to be home.”
On July 15, 2011, a pick-up truck flipped on Nungesser Road in Pikangikum, killing 39-year-old Kevin Suggashie, a community organizer popular with many Pikangikum youth, and his wife, Ibena. That night, after 16 suicide-free months, a 16-year-old girl killed herself; another 16-year-old girl did the same 20 days later. In the six weeks following that, two women and two men took their own lives. Suggashie himself had spoken often of his own suicidal thoughts, likening the practice to “a person, a spirit,” as he told the Canadian Press in 2000. The belief that such nefarious spirits—Windigos, as they are known in Ojibwa—roam northwestern Ontario is rooted in its history.
Matthew Strang (no relation to Jerry—almost the entire population of Pikangikum shares just 15 surnames) doesn’t believe in Windigos. Nevertheless, the kindly 77-year-old Pikangikum elder says his brother David, a former chief, felt a change blow into the community in the late 1970s. “He said something was coming this way, that it was coming from the west,” Strang says from his kitchen table. “I don’t know how he knew.” Like many in Pikangikum, Matthew keeps his house almost unbearably hot, as if to spite the cold outside. It’s also a way to keep kids inside at night, where they belong. “In our younger days we always had things to do,” Strang says. “We were exhausted by the end of the day.” In 1954, when Matthew was 20, there was exactly one recorded drunken assault in Pikangikum; a study of the reserve published five years later noted its “low incidence of violence.” Right around that time the outpost store began carrying items beyond the staples such as flour and lard, and started advancing credit. Welfare also came in.
As the anthropologist R.W. Dunning described in 1959: “People could gather in the central community at Pikangikum Lake and the ration subsidies were handed out from the trading store on a monthly basis. It was convenient to spend more time at the centre than travel back and forth from the store to trapping grounds.” The legacy of this abrupt change lives on today. The Northern Store is a one-stop shop to cash welfare cheques, buy food and clothing and to eat at Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken, the reserve’s only restaurants. When I visited recently, a head of lettuce cost $8, and chocolate cake was on sale for $2. Red Bull costs about the same as bottled water, and the cans litter the reserve.
The sniffers are everywhere and nowhere. During the day about the only sign of them are the foot trails darting off Pikangikum’s roads, and the knotted, leaking bags of gasoline they leave behind. 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. The girls must have already been sniffing, says Hank Turtle, a 38-year-old father of seven and a member of Pikangikum’s month-old solvent abuse team. “When you sniff it, it starts looking like a mud puddle. As it evaporates it gets darker.”
You can’t always see the sniffers, but you can often hear them at night, howling at the sky. They are the reason many park their trucks with the fuel cap as close to their houses as possible. Randy Keeper’s truck has been robbed of gas so many times that he’s drilled rivets into the fuel door that he unbolts every time he fills up. “I try to keep my truck low on gas,” says Kenneth Strang. “The sniffers would get it anyways.”
Sniffing isn’t the only way to get high, but it is certainly the cheapest. Pikangikum has been a dry community since a 1986 bylaw. Bootleggers risk having their vehicles impounded for bringing alcohol to the reserve because it is such a profitable business: 26 oz. of Silk Tassel whiskey, a favoured brand that sells for about $24 in Red Lake, fetches $120 in Pikangikum—nearly 70 per cent of the biweekly welfare cheque. During the spring ice breakup, when land- and water-based travel off the reserve is impossible, the price climbs to $200. 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. “It’s supposed to be good for hangovers,” says Strang, chuckling.
During the winter, when temperatures regularly fall below -30, sniffers 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. “She doesn’t want to talk to you,” he tells me calmly as we back away.
In Ojibwa, sniffers are known as ohmeenuhgeegahg—a person going around to take a sniff. They are arguably the most obvious sign of human distress in Pikangikum, and are treated with a mix of resignation 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. The couple’s kids are buried in the yard next to the house. 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.
The sight of the couple’s granddaughter doesn’t surprise Kenneth Strang. A father of four who wears a Fu Manchu moustache and a “Native Pride” baseball cap, he lost a son and a daughter to suicide. Last year, he struggled to keep one of his sons, Kilmer, from the habit. “I almost lost him to the sniffers,” Kenneth says. In 1997, according to the coroner’s report, there were 147 identified solvent abusers in Pikangikum. Today, “Probably half the youth population of the reserve sniffs,” says Anthony Quill, 26, another solvent abuse counsellor. “I got sniffers who are sent home from school because they smell of gas. They feel rejected. That’s why they sniff.”
“Or because they’re bored,” says Hank.
“Or they have problems at home,” says 29-year-old Sean Peters.
Hank Turtle, Sean Peters and Anthony Quill are on the frontline of Pikangikum’s anti-solvent abuse initiative. 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 in 2000, was 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 12-day group therapy excursion to a cabin across Lake Pikangikum that only recently started up again after a hiatus of several years. But the lure of gas sniffing is strong, a teenage rite of passage akin to getting drunk for the first time, as one expert put it in the coroner’s report. Somewhere between 95 and 100 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. “The OPP doesn’t do s–t about them. When they see a drunk they have to react, but when they see a sniffer they don’t care. Or they’re scared.” (Pikangikum’s band council forbade me from speaking with reserve law enforcement.)
And so the cycle continues every night. Hank and I walk through Squirrel Rock, a neighbourhood jutting out into Lake Pikangikum to the east of the band office. He says sniffers will usually start scouring for gas once the sun goes down. Anything is fair game: garages, people’s cars, snowmobiles, the public works trucks in the yards by the airport. The gas pump at the Northern Store has been broken into more times than anyone can remember. When sniffing started in the ’90s, Hank says, “they’d inhale it through the nose, in a rag. Now they take it in through the mouth. More intense.”
The moon lights up the trails through Squirrel Rock’s forests. There aren’t any sniffers there yet, but Hank points out the houses where it’s going on. “I don’t want to go in,” he tells me, smiling. “They might offer me a drink, and I’d be tempted to take it.” There are a few walking the road, bags in hand. At 9:30, we find a sniffer on the back porch of a house overlooking the lake. He’s swaying, dizzy-looking, confused. 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. He doesn’t say much about their passing, but his stint in jail and struggles with alcohol are testament enough to his pain. “I got a lot of grief,” he says simply at one point.
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. This marks Ontario’s far-north boundary, as well as the southern edge of the reserve’s ancestral lands once used solely for trapping, hunting and fishing. As the lack of clear-cuts shows, these 1.3 million hectares of black spruce, white pine, poplar and white birch have been fiercely defended from the forestry operations so apparent to the south—and for many represent Pikangikum’s shining future. In 1996, then-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. Today, Whitefeather’s office occupies two offices on the ground floor of the Pikangikum Hotel. Sitting in the designated 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. “When we saw the high unemployment, people on social assistance, the decline of the fur trade, we decided we had to do something,” says Paddy, a former chief. There are potentially 385 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. In 2007, for reasons unknown, a kid named Nicky burned down Pikangikum’s school. Since then, Pikangikum’s 732 students have gone to school in what look like large mobile homes that sit on cement foundations—a nod, perhaps, to their apparent permanent status. 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. “It took me two months for them to say a word to me,” says Christyne Horvath, after coaxing out an answer to grammar question. It’s often like the students are testing the air with their words, and don’t much like the results.
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. They love Pikangikum’s nature, its hockey arena, fishing and hunting, their families. “It’s peaceful and quiet at nights. No trucks and Ski-Doos driving around,” writes Hosea Turtle. Of the 31 students I asked, 24 said drinking, sniffing and suicide were the biggest problems. “The thing I want to change here is for people to stop drinking and sniffing and for the violence to stop,” writes 14-year-old Jacob Kejick. “The worst thing is seeing sniffers around holding weapons,” writes Paige Suggashie, 14. “They usually use metal things and hockey sticks.” Despite it all, a surprising number of kids want to stay in Pikangikum. “I want to stay here forever because the sunsets are beautiful here,” 14-year-old Paige Suggashie writes. “I don’t want to be here because I want to go home,” writes her classmate Rocky Turtle. “My real home [is] ‘Heaven.’ ”
All told, high school students in Pikangikum have lost a total of 29.5 days of school for what principal Jo-Anne Donnelly calls “hydro, water, deaths” so far this school year. In January, the school closed for three weeks following a mould outbreak in the teachers’ quarters. Aspergillus, an airborne fungus, sent three high school teachers home—and one to the operating table for major sinus surgery. The elementary school, meanwhile, is only open half days, “basically so we can get some food into them,” says Donnelly. Teacher Christyne Horvath, a petite 25-year-old from Corunna, Ont., adding that this “lack of momentum” is at least partly responsible for the dropout rate. Her Learning Strategies class had 40 kids at the beginning of the year; on the day I visited, there were 13.
Even those who graduate won’t likely find work. Chronic unemployment means the band office is one of the few places to get a job in Pikangikum, yet students “know that if they go to high school and college and come back to run for council, if the last name’s not right they aren’t going to get anywhere,” Donnelly tells me. Of the 15 family names in Pikangikum, only seven have held the position of chief since Pikangikum became a separate band in 1908. Some say your last name also plays a role getting a new house. Pikangikum requires roughly 250 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 12-by 24-foot shack on Lake Pikangikum. The windows are cracked and there are holes in the bare drywall. There’s hardly room to breathe. He says he’s given up asking when he’ll get a new house. In the band office, he says, there’s a bulletin board with hundreds of names on it. “The chief, the deputy and councillors say who should get houses. It’s favouritism. They give them to their friends and relatives,” Philip says. (“I’m not sure how to answer that,” says Deputy Chief Lyle Keeper when I ask him about this. “It seems like everyone is related to someone somehow.”)
Still, former chief Gordon Peters agrees with Philip. “I think favouritism plays a role in the decisions. You see the chief’s house, he’s got two or three brand new houses around his.” Most criticism is aimed at the federal government, however. As far back as 1994, Pikangikum’s suicide rate, its lack of running water and the scourge of gas sniffing has been parliamentary fodder used to embarrass the government in power, yet the situation has largely remained the same—or, in the case of suicides, gotten worse. In April 2007, Jim Prentice, then Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, flew to Pikangikum with a promise of just over $46 million for school upgrades, water and wastewater systems improvements, and funds to connect the community to the electrical grid. Five years on, nothing has happened. Prentice’s 2007 visit, meanwhile, is best remembered locally for something else entirely. When the minister asked to use the facilities, he was directed to one of Pikangikum’s many overflowing outhouses. “He took a piss behind the outhouse, because he didn’t like what he saw inside,” says Deputy Chief Keeper.
Billy Joe Strang doesn’t seem in the least bit concerned with Pikangikum’s seemingly perpetual bricks-and-mortar issues. Focusing on water and electricity, he says, masks the community’s real problem: the abject failure of many parents in the community. “Infrastructure is relatively simple to fix, but parenting isn’t,” Strang says. “You’re going to have the same problems whether or not you have running water.” The burly, soft-spoken fellow had an epiphany six years ago, when he saw two kids, “maybe eight or nine years old,” wander by his house at four in the morning. “I can’t get that image out of my head. Kids like that are going to grow up not knowing right from wrong.”
Billy Joe, chairman of the Pikangikum Health Authority, says the reserve’s societal ills—problems with police, alcohol abuse, sniffing, violence, teen pregnancy—stem from the lack of proper parenting. “Maybe because we thought we were smarter than our parents,” says the 42-year-old father of seven. “I have a pretty good idea that people are going to have a problem with that comment.” It’s crucial to his way of thinking, however. His office is in the process of purchasing a piece of land 35 km outside of the community. The plan is to set up a camp where not just sniffers but the families of sniffers would be sent a week at a time, three times a year, for family therapy, well away from Pikangikum’s demons.
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.