Reporter's notebook: Left behind in Attawapiskat
CBC reporter finds generosity and kindness in community dealing with suicide crisis
I was left behind in Attawapiskat.
I watched my trusted CBC News and Radio-Canada colleagues get on board a small airplane and I waved goodbye. I was temporarily stranded by a travel glitch and I was alone.
These things happen, especially in situations when a breaking story requires decisions made on the fly. We had sprinted to Attawapiskat to cover the community's suicide crisis, staying several days to listen to people describe their despair and, towards the end of our stay, documenting the developing sense of shared purpose and hope.
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Of all the challenges our team endured, my delayed departure after our many files were completed was no real hardship.
I enjoyed it.
The sun was shining, snow was melting and my later flight was interesting. It was the milk run, touching down in several communities along the western shore of James Bay. One of the jumps was so short, the plane was actually in the air for all of five minutes, but when aloft I was mesmerized by the sense of an endless landscape unfolding before me, bisected only occasionally by an ice road.
Generosity and kindness
On the ground in Attawapiskat for a few hours, I was treated to a tour of another kind — an instinctive display of goodwill and kindness that was, in its own way, as moving as anything I had witnessed while reporting on the crisis.
I hung out with a few people and the rambling conversation was about almost everything but suicide. They talked and I listened. Some things never change. High up on the list of topics was the price of gasoline, brutally expensive in isolated communities.
A very proud father showed me a picture of his three year old in an astonishingly creative Halloween costume, a life size Jack-in-the-Box with a cheerful boy built in.
I was instructed in the art of building a goose blind, the traditional ways to smoke fish and the very serious business of deciding at what point in the season driving on the ice road becomes too risky.
These were casual conversations; I only pulled out my notebook for my language lessons.
I learned how to say canoe in Cree, how to tell someone she is beautiful and how to jokingly call a pal an idiot. There were also some more basic instructions. I was given the tools to order food and possibly even understand a simple weather forecast.
Even in a week filled with despair over a wave of reported suicide attempts, the fear and frustrations were simply set aside for a solitary stranger. Curiosity was met with generosity.
Good humour followed me everywhere
The risk of youth suicide in Attawapiskat is a grim reality but outsiders rarely hear of much else. It might surprise many that a man chopping wood to heat his house was happy to put down his axe to greet a strolling reporter.
I'm pretty sure my presence inspired one jokester to tip up a parked all-terrain vehicle, flipping his friend off his perch.
At the airport counter, I had joked about my travel mix-up and then I did something that amused everyone. I put my plus-sized phone on top of my small wallet and then, for a moment, couldn't find my credit cards. I patted my pockets looking for my wallet, concern building — then I spotted it.
In fairness, I had very little sleep in Attawapiskat and my confusion didn't last long. But when I looked up the entire staff was shaking silently with suppressed laughter. Not in a mean way, for these were kind people. I found out later that after I left the check in counter they, unasked, worked hard to try to untangle my mixed-up reservation.
There was a moment, outside, when I realized that despite the cheerful conversations and laughter, the concern of the crisis isn't far below the surface.
I was chatting with someone and suddenly, a siren started. He instantly went silent. His head snapped towards the direction of the sound, no doubt wondering whether it was a signal of another tragedy.
It wasn't. It was a blip. The siren stopped immediately. There was a short silence. He said nothing.
Then my language instruction continued and I was given more everyday words my teacher thought I might find useful.
Canoe, paddle, bear and friend.