This post first appeared at VICE News.
Earlier this year, VICE Canada approached the office of Canada’s prime minister with an ambitious proposal. Last fall, we produced a documentary series on remote Indigenous communities, and we planned to go back. Only this time, we intended to do something different. We wanted to bring Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with us.
Our original series — Canada’s Waterless Communities — had focused on the lack of clean water access on many remote reserves. During a town hall with VICE in the midst of an election campaign, Trudeau committed to solving this problem within five years.
When the Liberal leader was sworn in to a majority government last November, he also became the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and Youth.
Given his dual-mandate, this trip is especially meaningful. Canada’s Aboriginal population is young — around half of the country’s Indigenous people are under 24 — and growing quickly.
Young people in remote Indigenous communities face unique and sometimes extreme challenges — whether it is precarious access to clean water and housing, or a lack of specialized health care and education. Then there are the waves of suicide, and suicide attempts, which are triggering states of emergency in some communities.
Those are the challenges that VICE wants to show the prime minister. His office agreed and we chose a date. VICE suggested several remote reserves and the Prime Minister’s office decided on Shoal Lake 40.
Shortly after the project was green lit, the issues facing Aboriginal youth in remote communities made headlines around the world. A suicide ‘cluster’ in Cross Lake, Manitoba. A devastating fire in Pikangikum, Ontario. And another suicide crisis in Attawapiskat, Ontario.
Our upcoming documentary is about all of these places. It’s about the common struggle that young people face if they feel cut-off from the rest of Canada; whether that is the barrier of distance, lack of resources, or simply, the right to a drinkable glass of water.
Over the past few months, VICE has worked closely with the community in Shoal Lake 40 to prepare for the prime minister’s visit. It’s difficult enough for residents in these places to come and go from their land, so it was not all that straight-forward to figure out how to bring a world leader there.
In the weeks ahead, VICE will release this special documentary. We hope that through Prime Minister Trudeau’s visit, the layered and complex issues facing First Nations youth in Canada become even more present in the national conversation. But more importantly, we hope it can help spark substantive change at a time when dozens of Indigenous communities in the country are experiencing an active state of emergency.
Michael Gruzuk is director of news and special programming at VICE Canada.