For a few cold months, the only ground transportation into and out of the small remote reserve of Attawapiskat is the James Bay Winter Road, a 300-kilometre stretch of thick, crafted ice that winds its way south to Moosonee.
Access by air
For the rest of the year, access is mostly limited to air travel, meaning most of the goods during that time have to be transported in by plane.
Community of 2,000
Limits on transportation mean many in the northern Ontario community of 2,000 never leave. While some, especially the young, will complain about the isolation, others are more than content to stay put and have little inclination to venture out to 'the south.'
Attawapiskat is certainly facing serious problems, including high unemployment, substance abuse and mental health issues, overcrowding and the recent spate of attempted suicides. But to outsiders, Attawapiskat doesn't look like the devastated community described in the series of bad news headlines that have come to define it.
Homes in Attawapiskat
Those coming from "the south" will likely discover they have no cell phone service (there is a carrier, however, that does provide cellular service for residents). The town's landscape is very simple, with a sparse collection of prefab wooden panelled homes dotting the area.
Some are in better conditions than others, in particular the ones built following the 2011 housing crisis.
To walk around the central part of the reserve may take about an hour, which is about as long as it took during a recent candlelit vigil walk to recognize the spate of suicide attempts that have rocked the community.
Vehicle of choice, or necessity
The vehicles of choice, or necessity, are pickup trucks, which regularly pass through the gravel roads of the tiny, quiet reserve. There are only a few people walking outside, possibly a result of the cold weather, but also likely linked to the dearth of destination points.
Coffee at Nate's
There's a health services centre and a band office. And a few trailers converted into makeshift snack/bar/coffee shops dot the area.
The Reg Louttit Sportsplex also serves as a community hall and has been the recent setting for all-day forums for residents to talk about the crisis of attempted suicides and the other serious issues facing their town.
The centre is in need of a good paint job, but there are basketball billboards inside. However, some of the youth complain that their access to the facility is limited and often used by the adults for bingo.
At one of the meetings, an activity wish list was drawn up by teenagers
But the Sportsplex does have an adjoining hockey arena used regularly by youth.
Jack Linklater Jr., a youth leader, met with Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde to present him with a list of priorities, including a youth camp site and youth centre.
The Vezina Secondary School is located adjacent to the centre and across town is the new Kattawapiskak Elementary School, which accommodates 400 kids, from grades Kindergarten to 8.
"I love the job. A lot of positive families I work with but there's challenges and struggles as well," says acting principal Wayne Potts. "You have kids who are not showing up to school on a regular basis ... Some of the families are struggling."
'Bullets to baloney'
Northern is the main store in town, selling everything "from bullets to baloney," according to manager Elizabeth Garnhum. But she admits the prices are "substantially higher" here because of the expense of transporting goods.
$22 for a 12-case of pop
For example, a 12-case of Diet Coke cans sells for a little over $22 (Metro in larger Ontario communities sells the same pack for about $5), a regular-sized can of cream of celery soup is $4.29, a box of tissues is $2.85 and a 375g package of cooked ham, $11. Fresh meats, fruits and vegetables are subsidized, Garnhum says, but still more than double the price you would find in the city.
Fast-food in Attawapiskat
Northern is also the site for KFC/Pizza Hut —the only fast-food franchise on the reserve.