A Lifeline for Pikangikum

By Tanya Baleta, Communications Coordinator

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Posted on December 2, 2015

The remote fly-in community of Pikangikum First Nation made headlines in 2012 when it was declared the suicide capital of the world.

The Ojibwa community, located in northwest Ontario, is home to approximately 2,800 people. In the last 10 years there have been over 80 suicides and 700 attempted suicides, mostly among youth. Pikangikum is rife with social problems including housing shortages, lack of running water, poverty, addiction and food insecurity.

Residents lack the basic necessities of life and are constantly reminded of those they have lost. The local cemetery is full, forcing many to bury loved ones in their front yards.

Half the population in Pikangikum is under the age of 21, yet only 600 children are enrolled in the local school. The school building burned down in 2007, forcing students to attend classes in portables in -40 C weather.

Pikangikum is a dry community, but bootlegged alcohol is available and many young people turn to gas sniffing. Others do not attend school due to bullying over lack of hygiene. Eighty per cent of residents do not have access to running water and indoor plumbing. Instead, water must be collected (often by children) in large blue bottles from three standpipes. Open pit toilets are typically located in front or side yards – some with no enclosures for privacy or to protect against the elements.

Craig Truscott, a parishioner at St. Paul’s and a volunteer with the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF), which is working to raise funds for Pikangikum, said bullying has been cited as a reason children commit suicide.

“Young women and men are living in overcrowded houses with their extended families and no running water,” he explained. “There’s a lack of hygiene. They go to school and other kids can be cruel.”

In 2011, the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario released a report regarding 16 suicides that took place between 2006 and 2008. Bob White, a Toronto-based engineer with experience working in developing countries, was approached by the Deputy Chief Coroner to review the report. In response, Bob created the Pikangikum Working Group, which seeks to work with people in Pikangikum to improve their quality of life.

Meanwhile, the Rt. Rev. Mark MacDonald, National Indigenous Anglican Bishop, formed Pimatisiwin Nipi (Oji-Cree for “Living Water”). The group is comprised of 40 to 50 Anglican parishes across Canada focused on raising funds, through PWRDF, to provide water and waste water treatment and distribution in Pikangikum. Pimatisiwin Nipi partners with the Pikangikum Working Group to provide running water and functioning bathrooms to those with the greatest need. So far, 10 homes in the community have been retrofitted and plans are in place to retrofit additional homes.

But Pikangikum’s need is great. The community still is not hooked up to Ontario power lines and relies solely on diesel generators for electricity. The population is growing at 5 per cent each year and accessing even basic necessities can be a challenge.

Earlier this year, the Winchester Group at St. Paul’s invited the wider congregation to join them in donating and knitting winter hats, scarves, mittens and other items. We collected over 750 items for this community in need.

“There’s a general need and general poverty,” explained Craig. “Pikangikum has a high birth rate and there are a lot of babies. Our donations are a sign they’re not alone. We’re not there with them, but we’re all in this together. It’s a lifeline from a Christian community that wants to help. On that level it’s a gift well received and well given.”

Originally, plans were made for our donations to be delivered at the beginning of November. But complications with transportation and shipping options have prevented delivery. Pikangikum is only accessible via barge in the summer, ice road in the winter or airplane, when weather permits.

“One of the challenges in dealing with this community is the isolation,” said Craig. “And it impacts the cost of everything. Food security anywhere in the north is a huge issue. A head of lettuce might be $8 but Doritos are $2.50, so what do you think people are feeding their children? They feed them Doritos.”

Please pray for Pikangikum.

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