Attawapiskat: Re-examining a community through photos

David Maurice Smith, who takes over our Instagram account, went to Attawapiskat to see a town largely known through crisis


Attawapiskat, Ontario, Canada. Young people play at a statue of the Virgin Mary near the St. Francois-xavier Catholic Church on the shores of the Attawapiskat river. The community has a complicated history with the Catholic church with many of its members subjected to horrible abuses while at the Catholic run St. Anne’s Residential school. A conversation with one 59 year old man who had endured St Annes for six years remained with me. He told me of repeated sexual and physical abuse at the hands of priests and nuns and in one particular instance when he was 11 years a nun punched him and broke his nose. It was the last time in his life that he was able to cry. To this day he still carries deep shame and wishes he could express it through tears, however even at the funerals of his parents and his own daughter, he was unable to. At the same time many in the community still connect to their Catholic faith, a testament to their forgiveness. October 7, 2016. David Maurice Smith/Oculi for The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Home to the Swampy Cree First Nations people, the rural Canadian community of Attawapiskat in Ontario reached a tragic tipping point in 2016. Nestled on the winding banks of the Attawapiskat river, the town of approximately 2,000 residents declared a formal state of emergency in response to an overwhelming surge of attempted suicides, momentarily grabbing the attention of the Canadian people.

With the support of a grant from the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting, photographer David Maurice Smith—the latest photographer to take over Maclean’s Instagram account, from April 1 to April 7—travelled to Attawapiskat with the intention of showing the community in a broader cultural context, one that could help Canadians to see beyond the crisis itself and understand more about the lives of the town’s residents. The serious challenges facing First Nations towns like Attawapiskat have essentially become the narrative, leading to an erosion of empathy from outsiders and a lack of appreciation of the richness and resiliency of these communities. Properly understanding the serious issues facing First Nations people requires a re-contextualizing—a shared focus not only on the struggle, but also on the culture and universal human values of the Attawapiskat Nation.

While addressing the complex challenges that exist, Smith’s project People of the Parting Rocks (the translation of “Attawapiskat” in Cree) also reveals slices of life in Attawapiskat that are largely overlooked: the enduring bonds of family, a connection to the land, the resurrection of traditional practices and the raw natural beauty of the region. “If we continue to stereotype Native communities as lost causes, we perpetuate a divide,” says Smith. “It is damaging to focus on only the most destitute and deplorable conditions for the sake of furthering a narrative that does not tell the whole story and leaves little room for healing.” Follow Maclean’s on Instagram for more photos from Smith, as well as other photographer takeovers and other spectacular images from our magazine.

(All photographs and captions come from David Maurice Smith.)

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