What life is like in this Canadian town known for its suicide epidemic

The name of the tiny town of indigenous Canadians, Attawapiskat, translates to “people of the parting rocks.” But in recent years, the name has become synonymous with its mountain of troubles. They were battered by a housing shortage peaking in 2011. Then they were dogged by a tax scandal, in which an audit found that millions in federal funds were unaccounted for. Recently, they were rocked by an epidemic of more than 100 suicide attempts that culminated in the declaration of a state of emergency last year.

First Nations people, the aborigines of Canada, have long been dealt a losing hand, says photographer David Maurice Smith. He spent a total of four weeks covering the northern Ontario community between August and October last year. Along with bad infrastructure and economic hardships, people still suffer from the trickle-down impact of residential schools, notoriously abusive schools that ripped indigenous youth from their communities and were extinguished only in 1996.

Lost between the lines of these stories, Smith says, is recognition of the resilience of the Attawapiskat people in the face of adversity. When Smith attended Creefest, a cultural celebration, he saw how members of the community contributed meat that they had hunted to support community feasts. He saw how people took in extended family members during the housing crisis, filling their homes with as many as 15 people under one roof.

But even the haze of negativity clouding the conversation about Attawapiskat has sunk into the town’s marrow. “Are you here to do a story about the bad kids?” asked 10-year-old DJ in reference to the suicide crisis, who Smith met through the course of his reporting.

“It kind of stung to think that this kid thinks, possibly, that this issue is the fault of the young people at risk. … That’s not the kid’s fault. It’s society’s fault,” Smith said.

This project was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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