More and more young people are sharing their stories online, using the different social networks and by producing short videos that are posted online for others to watch and learn about their struggles.
This past spring, the students at Pelican Falls First Nations High School gathered to march and share their stories in Sioux Lookout, Ontario (see the Yellow Ribbon Campaign story at http://knet.ca/walk_for_life/walk_for_life.html to watch their stories - be sure to watch the Eel Ground student's perform their video music production "Hear Me, See Me" at the bottom of the video stories).
This past fall the students in Eel Ground First Nation shared their production of "After the Thunder - the Simon Bishop Story" (watch the video at http://media.knet.ca/node/3159).
The young people in the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en First Nations are now telling the world about their struggles in a video production that describes one of their legends. "The legend tells of a demon in the woods who feeds on the spirit of the young. Watsx, as he's called, uses anger and confusion to trick his human prey, drawing them further and further into his shadowy world of darkness and despair until there is nothing left for his victims but death." To learn about the Gitxan struggle, read the following news story and visit http://youtube.com/watch?v=dwz96eBk-oM to see how the young people are working to maintain their traditional teachings.
Darah Hansen, Vancouver Sun - December 29, 2007
HAZELTON, B.C. - Death has hovered close to Jezabel Turley for several years now. When she was 13, her father held a gun to his head and tried to force his young daughter to pull the trigger, drunkenly pleading with her to kill him.
The only thing that stopped her was the weapon's safety mechanism, which had been left on during the struggle.
"I didn't want to do it. I just kept crying and crying," she recalled.
Her older brother was later able to wrestle the gun away.
No one died that day.
Turley is now 17 years old, but the anger and fear stemming from a violent home life fuelled by alcohol and drug abuse haven't left her.
Small and intense, her round face framed in a sweet pixie bob, Turley is a tiny warrior doing battle with her own demons now.
A silver stud under her bottom lip is a souvenir of a recent struggle with depression.
"Before, I was cutting myself all the time ... on my arms and my legs. Now, when I feel that way, I pierce myself instead," she said.
Turley has tried to kill herself at least a couple of times, she said. Her weapon of choice is the crack cocaine, crystal meth, pot and booze that are in abundance across the several small villages that make up this rugged western Interior community of roughly 6,000, mainly native people.
"I've tried almost every drug but heroin," she said.
Earlier this year, Turley drank so much vodka straight out of the bottle she ended up in a hospital emergency ward convulsing with seizures brought on by near-fatal alcohol poisoning.
"I woke up crying because I didn't know where I was," she said.
For Turley, the thought of suicide is eerily seductive when she drinks, like a voice whispering dark secrets in her ear.
It's not that she really wants to die. She doesn't.
"It's just all the anger that builds up inside of me," she said.
What's shocking about Turley's story is not the violence, but just how routinely versions of it can be heard on the snowy streets, and in the living rooms, bars, bingo halls and schools here.
Like other first nations communities across Canada, suicide among the younger members of Hazelton's Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en First Nations is an all-too-common cause of death.
A 1999 Royal Commission found suicide rates among Canada's aboriginal people are three times that of the general population.
Health Canada, meanwhile, ranks suicide and self-injury as the leading cause of death for aboriginal youths and adults up to the age of 44.
And, in its 2006 annual review, B.C.'s chief coroner found a "significant gap still exists between first nations and the general public with respect to suicide." (According to the review, almost 10 per cent of aboriginal youth under 18 had attempted suicide, and 21 per cent had experienced suicidal thoughts.)
But this year the rates of suicide and suicide attempts in Hazelton have been off the charts.
Since January, local police, doctors and health officials have struggled to respond to a staggering 111 attempts and eight deaths.
That's four times the numbers recorded in the area the year previous.
In November, seven people tried to kill themselves in one week alone.
Young women are overrepresented in the statistics, making up about 70 per cent of those who have attempted suicide. The remainder are men between the ages of 20 and 40.
Local health professionals and community leaders are at a loss to explain the sudden spike, which many call an epidemic.
Certainly, no one has been left untouched by the magnitude of the tragedy.
The names of the recent dead linger in the community consciousness. They include Angela Fowler, a 26-year-old mother of six who hung herself in August, and Kaitlyn Bright, a 16-year-old high school student who hung herself in October.
"A student was threatening this morning to take an overdose of pills," said Kathy Clay, a teacher at the First Nations high school located in the old section of Hazelton.
"You could almost get numb to it. But these are good kids," Clay said. "They've just got some s--t in their lives."
There's nothing to do in Hazelton, most of the adults and all of the kids will tell you.
Among the native population here almost no one works outside of a few months in the spring and summer. Unemployment in this former logging hub is now close to 90 per cent.
Drinking until dawn and taking drugs has become a means of passing time for too many people here. Then they sleep the day away in preparation for the next party.
There are no shopping malls, no mega-theatres, no swimming pools.
The only ice rink is a run-down, unheated wooden structure located between the "white" towns of new and old Hazelton, and neighbouring native communities of Hagwilget, Gitanmaax and Kispiox, all clustered around the confluence of the Skeena and Bulkley rivers.
All but condemned by municipal authorities, the dilapidated arena stands as a sad and sagging symbol of the poverty that has levelled this community in recent years, even as the rest of the province has grown in prosperity.
Only a decade ago, leaders here were full of optimism their resource-rich community would finally have a chance to share in B.C.'s economic success.
Hopes were bouyed by a landmark court ruling recognizing the existence of aboriginal rights and title to traditional territory.
Dec. 11 marked the 10-year anniversary of the Delgamuukw decision -- so named for the Gitxsan leader who brought his people's land claim to the Supreme Court of Canada. At the time, the case was widely heralded as a means to economic self-reliance and success, and a way out of the depression and government dependence that had crippled both the culture and community for decades.
Ten years later the darkness has only deepened.
While the neighbouring Nisga'a nation went on to sign an historic land claim settlement with the federal and provincial governments, cashing in on $500 million, the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en claim has been paralyzed by divisive politics.
Then the resource industry collapsed, taking with it the jobs in the woods and in the sawmills that have helped to sustain this community for more than a century.
Neighbouring towns have since rebounded.
A mere 60 kilometres east on Highway 16, the town of Smithers is booming with tourism and industry related to mining and a massive port expansion in Prince Rupert, but the money and jobs generated by those projects have not flowed into Hazelton.
As the work has dried up here, white families have pulled up stakes by the dozens, heading east to cash in on the boom in Alberta.
"The kids refer to Old Town (old Hazelton) as Ghost Town," said Reinhold Steinbeisser, principal of the elementary school in Kispiox.
Native people, too, have left in search of work.
But most have stayed, determined to remain on the land and tough it out as their ancestors did in hopes of better times ahead.
In desperation, people here have once again taken up the old ways of hunting moose and fishing for salmon as a means of putting food on the table.
"This community probably wouldn't still be here if it weren't for the First Nations people," said Clay.
"Someone once told me, 'When times get tough, you just pull in your belt a little tighter.' "
Nothing short of criminal
But the children have no choice.
They are stuck, mired in a community so deep in despair that to many, death seems the only way out.
Suicide is so prevalent that everyone here can rattle off a list of children and young adults who have died.
"One student, his mother committed suicide at the end of June, and one student I had, he overdosed on pills at the end of August. Before that, there was another boy I used to teach who committed suicide three or four years ago," said Brian Muldon, an elementary school teacher in Kispiox.
"There is nothing for these kids."
Over at the First Nations high school in Old Town, students say there's little mystery as to why the suicide rates are as bad as they are here.
They, frankly, wonder why the problem is not any worse.
"There's so much rape going on ... There are no jobs and nothing to do at all," said 24-year-old Sherylanne Hillis.
"There's just drugs and alcohol. That's all there is to do out here."
Hillis said she's tried to kill herself about five times.
One more time, she said, and child welfare has threatened to take away her two boys, age nine and three years.
Hillis is silent on questions of 'how', but offers an answer as to 'why' in the form of a short autobiography she wrote for a teacher detailing in crisp bullets the brutal violence, neglect and sexual abuse she has suffered in her life.
Her pain, she said, goes back generations.
"I learned my mom was in my granny's belly when she was in residential school, so there is a lot of darkness."
Seated at her side on a well-worn school couch, 22-year-old Jesse Austin, nodded knowingly.
"I tried breaking my skin but I couldn't do it," he said, twisting his arms out in front of his thin chest to expose the fragile blue veins in his wrists.
It was a lonely time, he said. He was 15 years old when he was sent from his home in Prince George to live with his grandmother in Kispiox. His mother had been jailed for selling crack cocaine; his brother and sister long ago taken away to live with family elsewhere in the province.
"I used to cry about it. I wanted to see my mom," he said.
When his best friend slit his wrists, followed by a female cousin, Austin said he decided to try it, too.
But, he shrugged, "I don't know. I just couldn't do it."
What's happening in Hazelton right now is nothing short of criminal, said Gitxsan mental health worker Alf Brady.
"I don't know what the definition of criminal negligence is, but to me it's when you know something is wrong and you don't do anything, and you can do something," he said.
Brady's is one of a chorus of voices in the region calling for immediate intervention from both the provincial and federal governments.
He wants to see an academic study done on why the suicide rates are so high here.
He also wants money put into job creation for the adults, and, for the kids, a new arena, a swimming pool, a gymnasium -- anything to keep them busy.
"Although money isn't the answer to everything, it's an important aspect to this problem," Brady said.
"This community is severely underfunded. People are scraping to get food on the table."
"The whole area is really depressed and needs a lot of attention," agreed Victor Robinson, a former Gitanmaax chief who recently co-chaired a community meeting in response to the spike in suicides.
"We need a number of youth recreational facilities. There are none," he said.
With millions of dollars currently being lavished on Olympic projects in Vancouver, Robertson said his community isn't asking for much.
"This area has been ignored for far too long," he said.
B.C. Minister of Children and Family Development Tom Christensen said he is aware of the crisis in Hazelton, and has earmarked $30,000 for the immediate creation of a safety program aimed at keeping youth connected to support services over the Christmas holiday period -- a time when suicide rates typically spike in every community across the country.
That's money on top of the $1.1 million the province allocates to the area annually to employ three full-time child and youth counsellors, with a fourth worker on the way in the new year.
Federal funding has come in, too, for the creation of a specialized, aboriginal-focussed suicide prevention team, based on a successful program out of Ahousaht -- an isolated native village on Vancouver Island that was hit by a similar suicide wave in 2005.
But it's not as simple as just throwing money at the problem, Christensen said.
"We all desperately wish there was a nice, easy solution, but experience certainly has shown us that is not the case," he said.
The long-term answer lies in the community leaders, parents and youth coming together to identify what's wrong, and come up with their own solutions.
Dennis MacKay, Liberal MLA for the riding, recently visited the community, taking part in one of several local meetings that have been called to address the situation.
MacKay agreed that employment opportunities in Hazelton are "not bright."
"They live in the middle of a huge vast forest area and there is very little going on, with the exception of a few small sawmills," he said.
But the responsibility for job creation must be shared with the band leadership, he said.
Last year, the Gitxsan were offered a five-year licence to harvest 1.2 million cubic metres of wood from the Kispiox forest supply. To date, he said, an application for the licence has not been submitted.
MacKay said there have been similar problems encouraging leaders to apply for grant money to replace the old ice rink.
"They need to get their act together and put in an application," he said. "If they don't do it, they'll never get the funding."
Certainly, many residents here are committed to bringing an end to the death toll, any way they can.
Since police raised the public alarm bell around the suicides in November, meeting after meeting has been convened in an attempt to address the problem head-on. Hundreds of residents, young and old, have come out to share theirs concerns and talk openly about the crisis.
For many people here, a return to the old ways -- reconnecting the people with their history and pride -- is the only long-term solution to the crisis.
"In my heart I know we need to do more with the culture and with traditions and be out on the land," said Doreen Angus, a Kispiox mother and grandmother.
Angus is deeply invested in the search for an answer. Her nephew, 19-year-old Timothy Angus, committed suicide five years ago.
Timothy, who was raised by Angus and her husband from the age of 10 months, never quite felt like he belonged in this world, she said.
"There was always a hole there that no one could fill no matter how hard we tried," she said.
Creative and energetic as a child, Timothy's spirit slowly burned out in his teens, said Angus.
"He stayed in school to Grade 10. He didn't get to work or any kind of experience like that. We tried getting him to join things, to learn life skills, but he would disappear," she said.
On Oct. 18, 2002, Timothy was found dead of a drug overdose on the floor of a friend's house. A suicide note said he'd gone to be with his mother, Kathy, who'd died when Timothy was just a child, stabbed to death with a screwdriver by a boyfriend.
Too many children here grow up with the same feelings of emptiness and hopelessness, said Angus.
Her vision is for the creation of a year-round facility where youths can connect with elders and other positive role models in the community and learn about themselves and their history through talking circles, singing and drumming.
"These are powerful tools to bring people out of themselves. They release a lot of negative energy," she said.
"There is a lot of knowledge here. We need to get people together and work on these things before we lose anyone else."
Right now, at this minute, Jezabel Turley is feeling optimistic.
She's hopeful she beat the worst of life and now dreams of using her life experience to help others as a drug and alcohol counsellor.
She, along with her sister Chastity and brother Jaye, all recently collaborated with their school to dramatize a short animated movie about suicide using a Gitxsan legend.
The legend tells of a demon in the woods who feeds on the spirit of the young.
Watsx, as he's called, uses anger and confusion to trick his human prey, drawing them further and further into his shadowy world of darkness and despair until there is nothing left for his victims but death.
Turley knows all too well the voice of the demon. But, like the main character in her movie, she has managed to resist his charms, putting her energy instead into school and coordinating activities for the students.
Christmas holidays aren't something she looks forward to as so many children across the province do.
Memories of holidays past, of her mother and father drinking and fighting, haunt her. But she is feeling strong.
Through all the sadness, the funerals of friends and family who didn't make it, Turley said she's found her own will to live.
"I think of all my friends and think of all who will miss me if I'm gone."