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What Life is Like in a Canadian Town Known for Its Suicide Epidemic

April 29, 2017|

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Young people play at a statue of the Virgin Mary near the St. François-Xavier Catholic Church on the shores of the Attawapiskat River in northern Ontario. The community has a complicated history with the Catholic Church, with many of its members subjected to horrible abuses while at the Catholic-run St. Anne’s Residential School. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

Young people play at a statue of the Virgin Mary near the St. François-Xavier Catholic Church on the shores of the Attawapiskat River in northern Ontario. The community has a complicated history with the Catholic Church, with many of its members subjected to horrible abuses while at the Catholic-run St. Anne’s Residential School. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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A father and son return at dusk  from gathering firewood along the Attawapiskat River in anticipation of the cold winter. Temperatures can drop to -40 Fahrenheit. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

A father and son return at dusk from gathering firewood along the Attawapiskat River in anticipation of the cold winter. Temperatures can drop to -40 Fahrenheit. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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The pelt of a freshly skinned female polar bear is washed in the shallows of the Attawapiskat River. The bear was shot hours before when it charged a local man. While the meat is eaten only in times of dire need, the fat was harvested to be used in traditional medicines. The preparation of this bear was a family affair. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

The pelt of a freshly skinned female polar bear is washed in the shallows of the Attawapiskat River. The bear was shot hours before when it charged a local man. While the meat is eaten only in times of dire need, the fat was harvested to be used in traditional medicines. The preparation of this bear was a family affair. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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Lucas Shisheesh, 21, right, and Adrian Hookimaw, 19, pick wild berries while hiking from a fishing spot on the banks of the Attawapiskat River. Shisheesh spends a lot of time learning from his father about the wilderness. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

Lucas Shisheesh, 21, right, and Adrian Hookimaw, 19, pick wild berries while hiking from a fishing spot on the banks of the Attawapiskat River. Shisheesh spends a lot of time learning from his father about the wilderness. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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A young boy practices with an air rifle. In the spring, he would go on his first goose hunt. The hunt is an important cultural activity in Attawapiskat. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

A young boy practices with an air rifle. In the spring, he would go on his first goose hunt. The hunt is an important cultural activity in Attawapiskat. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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Young people gather at dusk outside the Kattawapiskak Elementary School. The suicide crisis that captured media attention in 2016 included attempts by teenagers. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

Young people gather at dusk outside the Kattawapiskak Elementary School. The suicide crisis that captured media attention in 2016 included attempts by teenagers. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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The Northern Lights fill the night sky over Attawapiskat. It is said that when Cree are living the right way and conducting ceremonies and dances, the spirits of Cree ancestors celebrate in the heavens. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

The Northern Lights fill the night sky over Attawapiskat. It is said that when Cree are living the right way and conducting ceremonies and dances, the spirits of Cree ancestors celebrate in the heavens. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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Members of the Attawapiskat First Nation community gather in the St. Mary’s cemetery to visit the graves of loved ones. Despite the loss, there was a sense of connection and strength from the families, a testament to the resilience of the Cree people. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

Members of the Attawapiskat First Nation community gather in the St. Mary’s cemetery to visit the graves of loved ones. Despite the loss, there was a sense of connection and strength from the families, a testament to the resilience of the Cree people. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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A young mother’s arms show scars from cutting. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

A young mother’s arms show scars from cutting. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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Tessa Koostachin warms herself next to an open stove with her infant daughter, Marnie, strapped in a traditional Cree cradleboard. Koostachin is interested in learning the traditional ways of her people: On that day she was going to be part of a traditional drum-making workshop. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

Tessa Koostachin warms herself next to an open stove with her infant daughter, Marnie, strapped in a traditional Cree cradleboard. Koostachin is interested in learning the traditional ways of her people: On that day she was going to be part of a traditional drum-making workshop. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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Young men exercise at an outdoor playground. Young men of First Nations are often portrayed negatively in the media. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

Young men exercise at an outdoor playground. Young men of First Nations are often portrayed negatively in the media. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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Dancers perform during a ceremony in the Reg Louttit Arena. For many in the community, a return to traditional practices offers a hope for healing. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

Dancers perform during a ceremony in the Reg Louttit Arena. For many in the community, a return to traditional practices offers a hope for healing. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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Ten-year-olds DJ, left, and Alec, roam the roads of Attawapiskat. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

Ten-year-olds DJ, left, and Alec, roam the roads of Attawapiskat. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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Sam Koosees, a carpenter, with his daughter Arianna, 3. They share a three-bedroom trailer with 10 other family members. “I met several other caring fathers while I was there and cannot help but wonder how a stereotyped view of First Nations people in general exacerbates the issues they face,” Smith wrote. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

Sam Koosees, a carpenter, with his daughter Arianna, 3. They share a three-bedroom trailer with 10 other family members. “I met several other caring fathers while I was there and cannot help but wonder how a stereotyped view of First Nations people in general exacerbates the issues they face,” Smith wrote. Image by David Maurice Smith/Oculi. Canada, 2016.

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.