Pikangikum First Nation youth show strength, support in face of tragedy

A group of young people in Pikangikum First Nation are trying to help their community in the face of recent tragedies.

Young people visit, haul water, mow lawns, 'fix what was broken' for families affected by suicide

'When people followed my idea, it made me proud, happy,' says Ezekiel Turtle, far right, with his friends who helped out grieving families in Pikangikum. From left: Alwin Peters, Josh Turtle, Francis Peters, Julian Turtle, Brianna Owen and Jaylene Strang. (Project Journey)

A group of young people in Pikangikum First Nation are trying to help their community in the face of recent tragedies.

Four teens have died by suicide in the northern Ontario First Nation this month. But rather than descending into the darkness of grief and helplessness, dozens of young people rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

It was 20-year-old Ezekiel Turtle's idea to reach out to the grieving families and do chores for them.

"I wanted to actually do something for once — not selfish — but selfless," Turtle said.

Young people repair steps at the home of a family affected by suicide in Pikangikum First Nation as part of their own initiative to show support, unity and strength in a time of crisis. (Project Journey)
Turtle posted his plan to help families affected by suicide on a community Facebook group on Monday and was thrilled when his peers quickly responded.

"I always believed there was not good in this world. I just lost faith," Turtle said. "When people followed my idea, it made me proud, happy."

On Tuesday morning, when most of the community was shut down as is custom after a death in northern Ontario First Nations, more than 30 young people were holding a meeting.

They divided themselves into groups to visit four homes. Some kids visited with the family members, others cut grass and tidied yards. And, in a community where there is no safe tap water, another group made the trek to the treatment plant to haul jugs of drinking water back to the families. Yet another group cooked and delivered meals.

'I think it's important because we're role models, we're supposed to be the future,' says Josh Turtle, 19. (Project Journey)
"There are a lot of young people here. We have to learn how to be responsible, respectful," Turtle said. "When my grandfather died, there were people that helped clean up my house. They did hard work. In the past, there were always people that helped the grieving families. We, the youth, have to take that responsibility."

'I know what it feels like to lose someone'

Many of the young people found helping out was a healing experience. Here's what some of them had to say:

  • "We went to a bunch of yards and fixed what was broken and in the evening we cooked them supper," said Jaylene Strang, 15. "I have lost someone and I really wanted somebody to help me do something I didn't want to do. That's what we did, we helped them and it really helped me a lot. I felt really happy at the end."
  • "Helping out with the grieving families — it was responsible and respectful," said Alwin Peters, 17. "I learned to be part of the team. It feels great to help."
  • "We went to check on the grieving families because of what they're going through right now. We wanted to do something good for them." said Brianna Owen, 16. "It was the first time I felt good that I was doing something right."
  • "I know what it feels like to lose someone, that's why I wanted to help them," said Francis Peters, 16. "It shows them we're united, that we look out for one another. It shows that we are strong together, that we care for each other."

  • "Being helpful, respectful and supportive, made me feel proud. We're probably like heroes, supporting others," said Josh Turtle, 19, who is heading off to Centennial College in Toronto in September to study police foundations. 

The young people are all participants in Project Journey, a partnership among Pikangikum First Nation, Public Safety Canada and the Ontario Provincial Police.

"I see the families relieved that the youth are stepping in and the youth were all smiling, they were pretty excited to help," said Julian Turtle, 27, a project leader with Project Journey. "I was pretty shocked to see them working so hard. I didn't have to tell them what to do."

Reaching out in a time of crisis 'was a great example of who the youth are. I could not be more proud of them,' says Project Journey's Emily Atkinson, with Julian Turtle, Ezekiel Turtle, Alwin Peters and Josh Turtle. (Project Journey)
Throughout the summer, young people aged 14 to 29, are working on other community-oriented projects on the First Nation, including building a pavilion and community garden area, mountain bike trails and a bike park, an amphitheatre, revamping the dock at Taxi Bay (the main entry point by boat into the community) and a pavilion at Taxi Bay.

But this week's outreach to grieving families was completely driven by the young people, according to Emily Atkinson, a facilitator with Project Journey.

The "self-organization and self-motivation, where the Project Journey youth visited families affected by the recent suicides, was a great example of who the youth are," she said. "I could not be more proud of them, their dedication to their community and all of their hard work."