Sudbury·Audio

Stay or Leave? Attawapiskat teens face grim choice

Seventeen-year-old Syvanna Koostachin is one of the teens who chose to leave Attawapiskat, Ont., in the wake of a growing number of suicide attempts.

One group of teens prepares for their future. And for the other, the only rite of passage is to survive

A Indigenous teenage boy, centre, plays with the hoof of a caribou before skinning it for dinner at a bush camp for young people. The camp teaches survival skills in the northern Ontario reserve of Attawapiskat, Ont. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

It is a sombre tale of two worlds.

In April, 2016, 400,000 Ontario teens awaited letters of acceptance from colleges and universities, which would signal their transition from adolescence into adulthood.

That same month, in Attawapiskat, Ont., Chief Bruce Shisheesh watched helplessly as 13 teenagers made a "suicide pact" and attempted to end their own lives.

One group of teens aims to prepare for their future. And for the other, the only rite of passage is to survive.

Syvanna Koostachin left Attawapiskat to pursue a better education down south. She spoke with the CBC's Olivia Stefanovich about leaving her community in the middle of a suicide crisis. 2:49

Seventeen-year-old Syvanna Koostachin is one of the teens who chose to leave Attawapiskat, Ont., in the wake of a growing number of suicide attempts.

She said that the prospects of a better education as the driving force behind her decision.

"That place depressed me and, I don't know, you just feel alone, I guess," said Koostachin.

She said that, like other teens, family problems and bullying also contributed to her decision to leave.

Koostachin accepted an offer to live in Bracebridge, Ont., from youth workers who she met when they visited the James Bay Coast a couple of years ago, and now attends high school in the area.

A hand-drawn road sign directs James Bay ice road travellers to the communities of the coast. (Erik White/CBC)

In a previous CBC News story, Chelsea Jane Edwards said she understands why young people are struggling with poverty and despair in the Attawapiskat First Nation. She grew up in Attawapiskat and, when she returns there in June, she hopes to bring hope and inspiration to the young people in her struggling community.

"I feel that they don't think that they're cared about or cared for, and a lot of times a lot of these youth don't know who to turn to or they have nowhere to go," says Edwards. "So I think, in my opinion, that this is a cry for help for them."

Like many youth from remote First Nations, Edwards left home to attend high school in the city.

Attawapiskat map showing Great Lakes (Map data 2016 @Google)

She's now attending school in Fredericton and says being away from home is difficult for First Nations youth in particular.

I want to go back just to help people and to let them know that it's a big world, and they are not alone.- Syvanna Koostachin

"You start to lose your language, your identity, your culture, your background. You forget those things. It's hard to maintain your education and then your background, your identity."

Both Edwards and Koostachin aim to return to their communities after graduation, and hopefully provide some hope and optimism for others.

"I want to go back just to help people and to let them know that it's a big world, and they are not alone," says Koostachin.

Chelsea Jane Edwards was deeply saddened when she heard her remote northern Ontario First Nation of Attawapiskat had declared a state of emergency over a recent spate of suicides. But she wasn't surprised. (Keith Minchin/The Canadian Press)

With files from the CBC's Kate Rutherford, Olivia Stefanovich, edited/packaged by Casey Stranges