'There's always a little light': Indigenous youth find hope in the face of suicide
Cross Lake community in northern Manitoba declared state of emergency last year after 5 deaths
Every morning before 8 a.m., before 500 high school students arrive at Mikisew High School in Cross Lake, principal Anna McKay prays quietly alone in her office.
In those prayers, her mind turns to the struggles of the northern Manitoba Indigenous community, which issued a state of emergency last year after five young people committed suicide within three months and 140 attempted suicide within two weeks.
McKay says the suicides devastated her because she taught all of the students.
"We don't want to lose another student," she says. "When I see their faces, it makes me work harder for them. I want them to know: 'I'm here for you.' "
CBC's The Fifth Estate went to Cross Lake, also known as Pimicikamak. Over a nine-month period, the program followed three teens who shared their stories about what it is like to live there. The Fifth Estate was expecting darkness but also found hope and stories of struggle and determination.
- Watch "This is where I live" on CBC's The Fifth Estate on Friday at 9 p.m.
- Cry for help after teens take their own lives
Cross Lake, a community of 8,500 people, is 500 kilometres north of Winnipeg. It's a cluster of buildings in a sea of boreal forest nestled on the banks where Cross Lake meets the Nelson River.
For many students, the school is the only stabilizing force they have.
'I think their hearts are broken'
It is only the second day of school in September and McKay paces the halls. She nervously walks outside, searching for a student who has just bolted, threatening to kill himself.
The student has a history of threatening harm. He is one of 149 kids on a suicide watch list.
McKay calls the RCMP and Ron LePage, a suicide prevention worker in Cross Lake.
Standing more than six feet tall in his cowboy boots, calm and soft-spoken LePage is in demand by students looking for someone to talk to.
"I don't beat around the bush," he says. "I don't ask them if they're in pain. I ask them if they are thinking of suicide. I ask them if they want to die.
"I hear a lot of nobody cares anyway, nobody loves me anyway. I think their hearts are broken."
After a tense 30 minutes, the boy is found hiding in the woods by the RCMP.
He is handcuffed for his own protection and assessed by a mental health professional at the nursing station in Cross Lake. He will be flown to Winnipeg for further assessment.
Christian Bailey is what most would consider a class clown. The 17-year-old is in Grade 9 for the fifth time. Behind his impish smile is a lot of pain.
He says his parents drink a lot.
"Whenever my parents drink, my brother will drink too," he says. "It hurts to see my brother want to just grow up to be like them."
He says his house is full of sadness, depression and anger. "Everyone is miserable in that house."
He copes with music, friends and lifting weights and dreams of escaping Cross Lake.
If you fight long enough, you'll feel like a bird.- Christian Bailey
"If you fight long enough, you'll feel like a bird," he says. "You will feel free ... it must be like the best feeling in the world wherever you want to go, no one's going to stop you from going there."
When asked where he would like to go, he jokes: "Rio de Janeiro."
In September, The Fifth Estate visited Christian at home. He was babysitting half a dozen neighbourhood kids, including his sister Keira.
His parents weren't home. He said they were drinking all night, something that has been going on since he was little.
"They would go drinking and me and my brother would go from bar to bar, house party to house party looking for them," he says.
"Me and my brother loved our parents so much that we wanted to follow them every step of the way. But I guess they didn't want to see us grow every step of the way."
Sitting in a dark room with the TV blaring, Christian feeds a baby a bottle and says he is not ashamed of who he is and where he is from. He says he loves his family, but their problems are affecting him.
He talks openly about what happened to him as a child. He says he was sexually abused by friends of his parents during their parties.
"They would touch me in places I wouldn't want to be touched."
He says he didn't tell anyone because he didn't want to be taken away by child and family services.
In February, Christian moved in with his aunt. He says he needed the stability so he could focus on school.
"It's nice," he says. "It's better than where I was staying 'cause they don't drink there."
He says one thing keeps him going — his younger sister Keira.
There's always a better way to settle things instead of suicide.- Christian Bailey
"I got to try and get my sister out of that house, and the only way is either by getting a job and getting my education," he says. "That way I can take her away. Then she'll have a better life."
But things took a turn for the worse when Christian started missing school. He started drinking and smoking up to get high.
"I get easily distracted. It's hard to stay focused. I've been drinking and getting high to just feel something, to have a feeling."
After five years of trying, Christian completed Grade 9 this winter.
He became an uncle and says the baby has changed the atmosphere in his home. He says his parents have promised to stop drinking.
"They're finally showing that they're trying to change.".
On a bitterly cold February night, under a canopy of blinking stars, Christian says he wanted to share his story to help others who may be going through the same thing.
"There's always a better way to settle things instead of suicide," he says. "There are things that are going to come your way and knock you down, but it's your choice whether to get back up or not. No matter how dark your path is, there's always a little light shining at the end of it."
Another at-risk student is Maxine Monias. At 16, she stands barely five feet tall.
"I grew up around people teaching me how to fight, how to smoke, what alcohol is before I was even 10," she says.
Maxine has been mad at everything she has been through in her short life.
"I would always be mad, always hit the doors, slam the doors, swear at my mom and my sister, steal from them."
She says she has tried to kill herself four times. The first time, she was still in grade school.
If it wasn't for my mom, I wouldn't have been here right now.- Maxine Monias
McKay describes Maxine as very determined. "Once she sets her mind on things, she will do it."
Last May, Maxine was determined to kill herself.
"I was getting really depressed after losing my friend to suicide," she says. "I hung myself in my room, and I locked the door. But my mom broke my door. I was so close to killing myself.
"If it wasn't for my mom, I wouldn't have been here right now. I would have been in my coffin."
Salina Monias says she doesn't like to talk about the day in May when her daughter, after a heated argument, slammed her bedroom door and locked it.
"She wouldn't open the door for us," she says. "That's when I knew that something was wrong. There was no sound in her room."
Salina broke down the door and called relatives to come to untie Maxine.
It's been almost a year since that incident. Today, Maxine is back at school after a year's absence. In a candid video diary, Maxine talks about the challenges being a student.
"Today was a good day I guess. I went to all my classes. I am kind of confused with my life right now."
I can't leave him.- Maxine Monias
In the past few months, she's had her ups and downs. She has broken up with her boyfriend and says she still thinks about suicide.
"Nobody knows how much I want to leave this earth, how much I want to stop breathing."
But if there is one thing that brings Maxine hope, it's her young son. Like many teens at Cross Lake, Maxine became a mother at a very young age — in her case, 14.
But she says her two-year-old son Mervin keeps her going. He is a little boy with a big bright face and dark, expressive eyes.
"I can't leave him," she says. "He would probably think I didn't want him, but he's the one that's still keeping me here to this day."
When times get tough, Maxine turns to McKay for support. Sitting outside the high school, smoking a cigarette, Maxine talks about the advice McKay gave her.
"She told me I'm a good mother, that I can do this … she told me to think about myself and my son."
Vince Gill Scott
In August in Cross Lake, the sky is a burnt orange. Black bears the size of cars wander into the community and the highlight of summer is the Pimicikamak baseball tournament.
It attracts teams from across Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The stands are packed. Young kids crowd around the local team looking for heroes.
Vince Gill Scott warms up. His coach shouts orders in Cree.
Before the game Vince, 17, sits in the dugout and tells The Fifth Estate his friends are like brothers.
He recalls a time when one of them came to him with a rope burn around his neck.
"I told him: 'People care about you man, we're gonna miss you, too,' '" he says, sobbing. "'We love you and we don't want you to leave us like that.'"
Even though Vince isn't at risk, like so many in this community he has been touched by suicide.
He comes from a stable home. His relationship with his dad drives him to try to be the best he can — especially when he plays softball for the Pimicikamak Thunder and hockey for the Cross Lake Islanders.
For Vince, hockey is his ticket out of Cross Lake. He has dreams of playing in the NHL.
In August, Vince and his dad Vince Scott Senior pack up his hockey equipment and their hope, and drive four hours to The Pas to try out for the town's Junior A team.
The hardest thing I did was when I quit drinking.- Vince Scott Sr.
Scott Sr.'s eyes dart around the ice as he watches his son play from the stands.
"That's my boy," he shouts.
Scott Sr. says he had hockey dreams, too, but struggled with alcohol and had several close calls.
"The hardest thing I did was when I quit drinking," Scott Sr. says. "If I hadn't changed my ways, I would have been six feet underground."
He says he changed his ways when his son was two.
"I didn't want Vince to have my life."
On the second day of tryouts, Vince is taken aside by the coach. He's told he wasn't picked this year. His dad reassures him there will be other chances.
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When The Fifth Estate caught up with Vince in Cross Lake in November, he had found a new passion — his girlfriend Kendree Garrioch, 16.
They were inseparable and could be seen laughing, hugging and kissing in the school halls. But something was wrong. Vince was missing school.
McKay says when they went looking for him, he wasn't in the building.
"It's heavy for him right now," McKay says. "I know what's going on with him. He needs to own up to and be responsible for it."
In December, Kendree and Vince found out they were to become parents to twin boys. In a playful video diary, they described what they were feeling.
"I was happy and excited," Vince says. "Kind of scared at the same time. Mostly nervous about how it is going to go. I can't wait to be a parent. I can't wait to be a daddy."
Kendree says she was "scared and happy … not surprised though."
Vince says he feels he can pass on his dreams to his children. He wants to graduate and get a job in Cross Lake.
"It's not giving up," he says. "It's just passing on my dream to someone else. As long as I get to live, see my kids live my dreams, I'm already living my dream. Just keep them close to my heart and I'll be living that dream with them."