Suicide rocks Ontario First Nation

Last month tragedy struck a northern Ontario reserve again. The son of Chief Peter Moonias — 29-year-old Dwayne Moonias — took his life. Yesterday there was a memorial for Moonias in Toronto. CBC reporter Jody Porter reflects on the deep impact each suicide has in this tiny community.

How the survival of the community is jeopardized with every life lost

29-year-old Dwayne Moonias took his life last month, less than a year after a series of suicides and suicide attempts forced a state of emergency on the Neskantaga First Nation. (Facebook)

Last month tragedy struck a northern Ontario reserve again. The son of Chief Peter Moonias — 29-year-old Dwayne Moonias — took his life. Yesterday there was a memorial for Moonias in Toronto.

“Suicide is different in the North,” Sherry Prenevost said during the memorial. “The communities are small. There are only 400 people in Neskantaga.”

It is true.

But it is more than that.

In the small First Nations in Ontario’s remote north, each life is critical to the survival of the community

Each child has a role to fulfill. Some are told from birth what they are destined to be for their people. Others are left on their own to discover that they come from a family of hunters who always provide moose meat for the elders; a family of healers who listen and pray for the people; a family of teachers who maintain and share traditions with the children; or a family of leaders who have the vision and strength to see the future.

Sometimes it is difficult for those of us who live in the populated, well-serviced south to understand how crippling each individual loss is in communities that need every, single member’s skills simply to get by.

And so we get caught up in the terrible numbers. 

In the past year Neskantaga has lost nearly one person to suicide each month. Hardly a day goes by without a suicide attempt.

So a community of hunters and healers, teachers and leaders becomes a community in crisis. Everyone has lost someone. Each individual loss so keenly felt. 

A state of emergency remains in Nekantaga 10 months after it was first declared last April, when there were two deaths during the course of one tragic week.

Chief Peter Moonias declared the emergency, seeking outside help to cope with all the grief. 

On Boxing Day, the chief’s son Duane, committed suicide. He was 29.

This is how southerners like Sherry Prenevost came to understand, just a little more personally, about loss in the north.

Prenevost is part of the North-South Partnership for Children, an organization that helps bridge the gap between the wealth and privileges in southern Ontario and the wisdom and self-determination in northern First Nations.

The North-South Partnership sent 17 people into Neskantaga last spring to help with the crisis. Young people in the community told the group they wanted to stage an art show. When no one showed up, the volunteers worried the children would be disappointed. That’s when Duane Moonias was called. 

In Neskantaga, the sound of Duane’s music is irresistible. Once he arrived, the party started. The laughter flowed. The art was appreciated. The children were happy.

As a talented teenager, Duane travelled the north with his fiddle. There are few things more laugh-so-hard-tears-run-down-your-face fun than a square dance in a remote First Nation. Duane’s fiddle teased the kookums out of the corners and set the mooshim’s moccasins alight.

But for the young people, it was Duane’s guitar that was magic. There was no rockin’ pop song or aching country ditty he couldn’t play. And when those tunes didn’t quite fit the mood, Duane composed his own.

His heartbreaking plea for God’s help to ease an unknowable pain was played at the memorial.

Duane’s father, Chief Peter Moonias (with his wife Maggie) travelled all the way to Toronto to speak to those gathered to honour his son.

He proudly listed Duane’s many official roles in the community, the committees and boards his youngest son sat on, the jobs he held.

The chief smiled speaking of Duane’s two daughters, and the youngest’s upcoming birthday. She’ll be 3 this month.

And he expressed gratitude for the gift of Duane in his life.

Duane’s brother Derek was next to speak, promising to put more of Duane’s music up on youtube for others to enjoy. 

Derek spoke of the loss of his sister a decade ago, when his dad gathered the brothers together and told them that “tears can make you stronger.”

Then, through tears, Derek said: “If my mom can keep standing, if my dad can keep standing, then I can keep standing.”

Such is the strength and burden of the Moonias family and the resilience of Neskantaga.

May we find in it, as southerners, the role we need to play to support their healing.

Jody Porter is a CBC reporter based in Thunder Bay. She visited Neskantaga when the state of emergency over the suicide crisis was first declared. She’s currently on leave in Toronto as  a William Southam Journalism Fellow at Massey College.