A music mentorship program is giving First Nations in northern Saskatchewan extra tools in the battle against some of the highest suicide rates in the country, while at the same time producing an album, a music video and no small amount of local pride.
Youth like Thomas Maurice, 21, from English River First Nation, contributed to N'we Jinan The Gathering Volume 2, a 14-song album released on Friday.
"Writing [music] helps me cope with the pain," said Maurice, who since getting involved in the project in the summer of 2014 has stopped using drugs and has gone back in school. "It makes me feel good."
The song produced by Maurice and others in Patuanak, Sask., is called Caught in the Storm, and it tells the story of three young people fighting through their personal struggles.
The suicide rate in the Keewatin Yatthe Regional Health Authority in this part of the province is among the highest in Canada and the highest of any health authority Saskatchewan.
The area, which includes English River, La Loche, Buffalo Narrows and other communities in the province's northwest, averaged 43.4 suicide deaths per 100,000 people between 2008 and 2012. The suicide rate for Canadians, as measured by the WHO, is 15 per 100,000 people.
"The vision was to show youth there is hope. There is a lot to live for," said Dale Martin Apesis, a youth empowerment worker in Patuanak and the person who brought the workshop into the community as part of a leadership camp in 2014.
At the end of a 3-day workshop, the youth had written two songs and performed them in front of the community. Apesis says the reaction was emotional.
"It was like 'Wow, there is talent in our community,'" said Apesis. "It was very moving and inspirational. There were people who had tears."
David Hodges, the Montreal music producer and educator who supported the youth during the process, initially came for three days with a travelling studio. He did the same thing in the Cree communities of Northern Quebec in the spring of 2014. The album out of that tour, N'we Jinan - Eeyou Istchee Volume 1, went to the top of the hip-hop category and number eight overall in Canada when it was released in May of 2014.
Hodges says he is more and more in-tune with what happens to youth when you set the stage and support them through the creative process.
"You can't plan transformation," he said. "But you can set these environments where that allows that kind of thing to potentially happen.
"When you let kids express themselves and you really just enable them. That is the most important thing... and then it's just 'let's create.'"
The participating communities for N'we Jinan The Gathering Volume 2 are Patuanak, Sask, Frenchman's Head and Moose Factory in Ontario and Kawawachikamach and Gatineau in Quebec. Three of the songs from the album have also been turned into videos, including Caught in the Storm.