Like many people, Bob White first heard about Pikangikum First Nation after the release of a provincial coroner’s report in 2011 that documented the alarming youth suicide rate in this remote Ojibway community in northwestern Ontario.
Between 2006 and 2008, there were 16 suicides by hanging, some by children as young as 10 years old. In the last decade, more than 60 young people have killed themselves in this small community of about 2,400, where most of the population is under the age of 25.
There is 90 per cent unemployment, a severe housing shortage – and most homes have no indoor toilets or running water.
Circumstances similar to these in Attawapiskat, another Ontario reserve, compelled Theresa Spence, chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation, to undertake a hunger strike. Her protest is meant to raise awareness of the conditions on reserves and get a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to discuss native rights. Spence has gone more than a week without eating.
An engineer with Mi’kmaq ancestry, White had spent a career working in developing countries like Mexico and India. He wanted to help Pikangikum, but understood it wasn’t going to be easy.
"First Nations people haven’t had a great experience of white men bearing gifts," he said.
'First Nations people haven’t had a great experience of white men bearing gifts.' — Bob White, an engineer leading relief efforts for Pikangikum native reserve
It didn’t take long for White, 67, to discover that conditions in this fly-in community are as tough as they come.
In a place where temperatures can drop to –40 Celsius, homes are heated by wood stoves in winter. This fall, shortages of fuel for generators that heat community buildings forced the school to close and teachers to leave temporarily.
Mould problems in the elementary school forced its closure last year, resulting in 700 kids having to repeat a year.
Gas huffing is common among young people. And there can be hunger, because the cost of food in the town’s single store is several times what you’d pay in the south.
Front yards serve as graveyards, where people bury their dead.
"It’s desperate, and I have been all over the world," White said.
Looking to make ‘real change’
White wanted to offer practical help, so he set up the Toronto-based Pikangikum Working Group, which brings together professionals, many of them engineers, who offer concrete expertise.
"I don’t want to be part of a feel-good [project]. I want to be part of real change," he said.
Among his plans is the establishment of a small lumber mill where locals can be trained to cut wood and build houses. He wants to build a greenhouse, so they can grow their own food again. He wants to set up more water cisterns, so there’s clean water readily available. White made contact with a Pikangikum elder and former chief, Gordon Peters, who spoke to him emotionally via Skype about the needs of his community.
One of White’s recruits is David Steeves, a retired IBM executive and engineer based in Toronto who owns a plane and has a track record of volunteering among First Nations communities in the north.
"It’s not all about Attawapiskat," Steeves said, referring to the James Bay community that attracted international media coverage last winter because of its acute housing shortage.
In 2011, Steeves and volunteers gathered 4,000 pounds of clothes and bedding and hired a truck to drive it to Pikangikum in time for Christmas Eve.
But he wants to do much more. "We need to understand the infrastructure issue. They need infrastructure, so they can thrive," he said.
‘A question of trust’
This summer, White got into Steeves’ Cirrus four-seater plane and the two men flew to Pikangikum.
When they arrived, the band council was headed out of town. "They forgot we were coming," White said.
"We were walking along, and up came a cute little girl in a dirty dress. I thought she was going to give us a hug. Instead, she picked up a rock and threw it. It said to me, there’s a question of trust. It was a sad moment," said Steeves.
"Then I saw the gravestones everywhere. [Pikangikum]
is our backyard. This is only 28 hours from Toronto," he said.
To date, the only tangible result of White’s efforts is the clothing donation. Steeves is organizing it again this year with the help of the provincial police and a teacher named Gina Marucci and her elementary school students at the two-room Waabgon Gamig First Nation on Georgina Island. They have put together posters and radio advertisements in support of Pikangikum.
The kids hear about Pikangikum’s full cemeteries and hardships.
"They say it’s not fair that the dead are buried in their front yards, and how sad it must be to go out each day and see that. They are shocked that there’s only one store, and about the cost of things, and how there’s no work," Marucci said.
As for the residents of Pikangikum, there is a wait-and-see attitude among the band council. As one band member, Kenneth Strang, said in a telephone interview, "People come this way, with good ideas. They come and go. They ask what we need, and we told them."
Strang said that what the community needs most urgently is "warm jackets, ski pants, clothes."
When faced with criticism from the band council, White is relentlessly optimistic. He says he’s committed to Pikangikum.
"How do you say anything to hundreds of years of repression? You can’t say anything. You have to act. We’re committed to change. People are lining up to make a difference," said White.
Asked why he and others stay in these remote and troubled communities, the answer, Strang said is obvious – it’s home and they feel a connection to the wide open land.
"People up here are attached to nature and the beauty and to a land untouched by forestry and mining. People here can still roam free."