Thunder Bay

Neskantaga First Nation finds hope after suicide crisis

Artwork created by young people in Neskantaga First Nation will soon be on display in Toronto as part of an effort to help the community recover from a suicide crisis.

North-South Partnership helps Neskantaga youth express themselves through art

Alyssa Moonias, 15, says the North-South Partnership is helping her reach her goal of being a professional photographer. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Artwork created by young people in Neskantaga First Nation will soon be on display in Toronto as part of an effort to help the community recover from a suicide crisis.

The fly-in community, located about 480 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, declared a state of emergency April 17 after two young men killed themselves in less than a week.

"In our community it was very devastating. It still is," said First Nation counsellor Kelvin Moonias. "The tremendous loss we had."

Moonias said he had felt overwhelmed by the grief in the tiny First Nation, home to about 300 people, and was grateful to see a team of helpers arrive from Toronto.

"After seeing first-hand what these people can do and that they truly care, it really touched my heart," he said.

Artwork prompts smiles

The North-South Partnership for Children sent 17 people into the community, partly in response to the crisis. The agency brings together philanthropists in southern Ontario with northern First Nations.

When the southerners arrived, young people in Neskantaga asked them to help organize an art and music festival.

"Art and music is one of the ways that the young people in Neskantaga First Nation cope with what's going on in a positive way," said Lauren Akbar, the youth engagement co-ordinator with the North-South Partnership.

The evening festival was a hit, according to Moonias, who looked around the community centre and saw smiles for the first time in months.

"I'd say that was magical because I haven't seen that in our community for a while, where our young people felt there is hope. They're starting to feel hope again."

Teen plans future as photographer

Now those hopeful feelings are spreading, as the artwork travels with the North-South Partnership to Toronto, where plans for a gallery show and sale are being finalized.

Moonias's 15-year-old daughter Alyssa Moonias will have her photographs in the show.

"It feels good, like they're helping me get my name out there, helping me to succeed and reach my goal to be a professional photographer," the younger Moonias said.

Her proud father said it's a big deal to hear his daughter talking about the future.

"She's been different in a good way, after I bought her the camera," he said. "It's like something saved her."

And he said the connection Alyssa has made with Akbar and others with North-South is part of that change.

"Now I feel like our youth are getting up [and saying] it's worth living, it is. There are people that care."

Long-term relationship

It's a relationship that has benefits for everyone involved. Ryerson University student Branka Gladanak was among the North-South Partnership group that worked with the youth in Neskantaga.

Gladanak said hearing young people talk about their feelings deepened her understanding of the complexity of First Nations concerns, and left her longing to know more.

"It's something that really needs a lot of thought and understanding, and this experience has helped a lot, but I still feel like I need to learn so much more," she said of her 10 days in Neskantaga. "I feel like my understanding is on the surface and I'd really like to dig deeper and find out more."

This isn't the first time the North-South Partnership has been involved in Neskantaga, and organizers say it won't be at last.

They say the long-term relationship is important to the healing process, and everyone's understanding of how to move on after the crisis.