A troubled northwestern Ontario community is starting a five-year project to improve the lives of its young people.

Pikangikum First Nation, located 500 km north of Thunder Bay, has struggled with unlivable housing conditions, youth suicide, and often bitter relations with police. But now, the community and police have started working together to turn things around. 

Ontario Provincial Police superintendent Ron van Straalen and Pikangikum First Nation Chief Paddy Peters announced what they call “Project Journey” in Thunder Bay on Tuesday, at the OPP North West Region Headquarters.

Paddy Peters

Pikangikum First Nation chief Paddy Peters says the community used to deeply distrust the police, but that is changing as officers interact with youth. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

Project Journey is a partnership between the National Crime Prevention Strategy of Public Safety Canada, the OPP and the community of Pikangikum First Nation. Its goal is to prevent and reduce youth crime and anti-social behaviours among at-risk youth between the ages of six and 18 years of age in Pikangikum.

According to officials, the project has been designed to be culturally appropriate and reflect Aboriginal values, beliefs and interests and to encourage Pikangikum youth to be leaders in their community by enhancing their resilience.

They began delivering the program in December.

'A different perspective'

Chief Peters said he remembers the distrust people used to feel toward the Ontario Provincial Police officers in their community.

"The only work that they came to do was arresting people and taking them to jail,” he said.

"The kids now, with the interaction that they have with the police, I believe they'll have a different perspective." 

The project is being called the first of its kind between police and First Nations in Ontario. 

Funded by Public Safety Canada — $2.5 million over five years — the program aims to prevent young people from committing crimes and abusing drugs by giving them alternatives. 

The OPP, who have donated their officers’ time to the project, are working with Pikangikum's teachers, elders, parents and other members of the community to provide cultural and recreational activities — both in and out of school.

Chris Amell

OPP sergeant Chris Amell is the co-ordinator for Project Journey, a collaboration among the National Crime Prevention Strategy of Public Safety Canada, the OPP and the community of Pikangikum First Nation. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

"One of our first activities was tobogganing. The experience of hearing the unconditional laughter [from the participants] just being children … was really the start of it,” said OPP sergeant Chris Amell, project co-ordinator.

“What we're trying to do is put together a program [that is] positive and generates resilience in them to deal with some of the pressures and challenges of living in an isolated community."

The program includes a variety of activities for youth, including going out hunting and fishing, learning about their culture from elders and taking part in a mock police academy planned by an OPP officer. 

Chief Peters said he expects all of it to result in positive change for his community's young people, including better school attendance and a reduction in substance abuse.        

"There's been a lot of media attention in regards to our community and a lot of that has been negative," he said. "Youth and children ... they read ... a story in Pikangikum that's negative ... [and] they begin to feel sad, they begin to feel disappointed because Pikangikum is talked about in a negative way." 

"I want to start seeing ... the children in our community, the youth in our community ... for them to start ... thinking positively and living a lifestyle that represents a positive attitude.”