When you grow up surrounded by suicide, it seems normal. How do you heal a ‘broken spirit’?
By Tanya Talaga Staff Reporter Sat., Oct. 13, 2018
Twenty years ago, Mike Metatawabin went to Wunnumin Lake First Nation to act as a translator for the Elders coming inland from the James Bay coast to attend a summer meeting of Nishnawbe Aski Nation leadership . It was during this trip that Mike first met a Ralph Rowe survivor. The encounter altered the course of his life.
He had been sitting in the community hall and remembers being overwhelmed by the odd, unsettling feeling that he needed to leave. The cold rain soaked through his shoes as he made his way to the modest cabin where he was staying. He hoped the wood stove would be on but the cabin was dark and chilly. He could feel someone’s eyes on him. A young man was sitting in the corner. A small leather hand drum was on the table in front of him. The noose was near. A graveyard in Iqaluit, the capital city of Nunavut, with an arc of whale bones. The graveyard is just outside the city of nearly 8,000 people on the shores of Frobisher Bay. The suicide rate among Inuit is 10 times greater than the national average. ( Tanya Talaga / Toronto Star )
Mike took a seat and began to beat the drum. He told the young man of the pain he was holding after the sudden death of his infant just months earlier. Mike finished his story and continued to drum.
Then the young man spoke. He said that tonight was the night. He could not take it any longer. The hurt was unbearable, and no one seemed to care. He didn’t feel he could talk to anyone about what Ralph Rowe had done to him, because it was the faithful who kept inviting the monster back. Every time the Anglican priest flew into Wunnumin, he was met with praise and adulation.
But the young man, who was then only a boy, knew what was in store for him. He was terrified. No one would believe that this revered man of the cloth would do such nasty things. The story poured out of the man, and Mike continued to drum. They sat together for hours, until they were both emotionally spent and Mike saw the danger pass from the man’s eyes. Article Continued Below
“I’ve never forgotten that moment. A time when someone was reaching out and I was the one who answered the call. It makes you wonder at the power of the will to live. At a time when all seems lost, an angel comes calling, sending a message to listen,” Mike wrote in the 2016 Mushkegowuk Council of Cree Nations report “The People’s Inquiry into Our Suicide Pandemic.”
Mike was the lead commissioner in the council’s investigation of the suicide epidemic in the James Bay First Nations communities from Moose Cree to Attawapiskat to Fort Albany. After his encounter with the young man in 1998, Mike would cross NAN territory, trying to find survivors who, for decades, had told no one what had happened to them. He never dreamed that encounter would lead to the discovery of hundreds of men, all survivors, living with their pain, fighting their memories with alcohol, addiction, and violence, experiencing suicidal ideation, and, in some cases, dying by suicide.
Mike never dreamed that Rowe’s legacy would have an impact on the wives and the children of all of his victims. To this day, the devastation of those assaults committed by a sick man echo like thunder in the 20 communities that were the ministry of the Anglican priest. And his crimes can be linked to the suicides of the seven girls from Wapekeka and Poplar Hill First Nations four decades later.
Friends to the end: How the suicides of seven Indigenous girls revealed a community undone Rev. Ralph Rowe, back left, poses with young people at a Manitoba fishing and hunting camp in a photo from 1986. Rowe was ordained by the Anglican Church and ministered to remote First Nations communities.
On the web page for Wapekeka First Nation, in small type down the left of the screen, there is a reference to the signing of Treaty No. 9. It reads: “The sun coming up in the horizon at dawn, the river flowing ever so gently, the trees standing tall and grass from Mother Earth. One can hear the words of the Treaty Commissioner promising that the Queen will forever take care of her children. As long as the sun shines, as long as the river flows and as long as the grass grows.” Article Continued Below
Wapekeka First Nation is located about 450 kilometres northeast of Sioux Lookout in northern Ontario. In 1929, the area was added to Treaty No. 9 as the province of Ontario expanded to the northwest, toward the Manitoba border. The only way to get there is by a charter flight (about $1,200 return) with Wasaya Airways, which is owned and operated by the First Nations it serves.
Nestled between Frog Lake and Angling Lake, it is made up of two communities, Wapekeka 1 Indian Reserve and Wapekeka 2 Indian Reserve, and altogether occupies about 52 square kilometres. The land is rich with wildlife and freshwater lakes and includes one of the last untouched areas of boreal forest on Mother Earth. In the dead of winter, the region is repressively cold, with stretches at minus 30 or 40 degrees C. When you exhale, your breath forms frozen droplets and sticks to exposed hair, even your eyelashes. The snow crunches, clean and white under your feet. The only respite is to stay indoors, and even when you do go out there aren’t many places to go.
Wapekeka has three churches for a community of only 363 souls. Anglican is the dominant denomination, and the Church’s history here is complex. It has been both a saviour and, because of one man, a force of destruction. That man is Ralph Rowe, a former priest.
It is almost impossible to describe how damaging the actions of Ralph Knight Munck Rowe have been to Wapekeka and the more than 20 other communities in northwestern Ontario and in northern Manitoba. His cover was perfect. Rowe, the son of an Anglican clergyman, was first an Ontario Provincial Police officer and assigned to Manitoulin Island, home to a handful of First Nations communities. Around this time, he got involved with the Boy Scouts. He also took flying lessons.
Rowe abruptly left the OPP and in 1966 moved to Kenora, where he operated small charter flights to remote communities. From 1967 to 1970, he lived in Manitoba, where he studied theology and became a lay reader for the Anglican Church, travelling in the summers to Weagamow and Neskantanga First Nations, living in each for one month at a time.
By 1975, Rowe was ordained by the Anglican Church and charged with ministering to the remote First Nations communities of northern Ontario. He endeared himself to people who had adopted the Christian faith during their time in residential school. He also learned Oji-Cree so he could talk to the Elders.
Rowe took special interest in young boys around the age of 12. He took them camping — girls were never invited — and became a Cub Scout leader, starting a program in Wunnumin Lake in 1977. His method of operation was always the same.
During Rowe’s sentencing in Kenora in 2012, Justice Donald Fraser said Rowe’s actions had had “bigger impact than even the residential school experience,” because it was “fresher” and it affected a generation of men who were becoming leaders of their communities.
“You were greatly respected, you drew young children to you like a pied piper and it is the confusion of that experience, somebody trusted and respected by parents, liked by children, and then suddenly turn[ed] into a parasite, a monster,” Justice Fraser said. “If putting you through a mincing machine and feeding you to dogs would help, I would love to do that if that were in the Criminal Code but it is not and it would not help.”
From the 1970s until the mid-1980s, Rowe engaged in rampant sexual abuse of young boys. NAN estimates that Ralph Rowe’s victims could number up to 500. He is likely one of the country’s most prolific pedophiles. But he has been charged with only about 60 sex crimes and served no more than five years in prison because of a plea bargain.
Rowe, 78, now lives on Vancouver Island, in the small, sleepy community of Lake Cowichan. Journalist Stephanie Harrington visited Rowe at the local Anglican church, where he is a parishioner. Rowe says that he has been through “all kinds of programs” and “the fact is no one can be more sorry than I am.”
He also says he wants a “healing circle,” something he has sought for 31 years. “And I’ve continued to be denied,” he says. He maintains that there are many abuse claims, but “It’s at a stage now where many things are included that really aren’t true.”
Rowe has left a destructive legacy in communities that are already grappling with the after-effects of residential schools — broken marriages and families; physical and sexual abuse; violence and domestic assault; addiction issues; broken men with low self-confidence and confusing thoughts, including the feeling they have nowhere to turn.
NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler blames Rowe for the suicides of dozens of adult men who were unable to cope with what he did to them, and for the cascading effect on the children or relatives of survivors. Without on-site medical and mental health care, the situation is untenable.
Many who took their lives during a spike of suicides in Wapekeka First Nation during the 1990s were Ralph Rowe survivors. In response, the community set up the annual Survivors of Suicide Conference, and within a year of its funding being cut in 2015 the seven girls from Wapekeka and Poplar Hills First Nations died by suicide. Today the First Nations communities inside Treaty No. 9 — communities such as Pikangikum, Attawapiskat, Fort Albany and Wapekeka — have one of the highest youth suicide rates in the western world. Clockwise from top left: Kanina Sue Turtle, Alayna Moose, Jolynn Winter, Amy Owen and Chantell Fox. The young girls, whose lives had intersected either in group homes or care facilities far away from their communities, took their lives within a year of each other. ( tania_pereira )
Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the voice for 60,000 Inuit who live in Canada, says leaders and Elders must be involved and children must be protected and deserve to have a happy, healthy childhood. “There is no way to talk about this issue without it being difficult,” he says. “We need to do more to keep our children safe. We know the risk factor that child sexual abuse is for suicide.”
Sexual abuse is a driver of high suicide rates in Indigenous communities across Canada, but it is not often talked about openly, notes the University of Saskatchewan’s Jack Hicks. The suicide rate among young Indigenous women in Saskatchewan between the ages of 10 and 19 is 29.7 times higher than that of non-Indigenous women in the same age range. Comparatively, the suicide rate among First Nations men in the same age group is 6.4 times higher than that of non-First Nations men.
No matter where you are in Seabird, you can hear the long, mournful bellow of the train whistle. The Canadian Pacific Railway built a track straight through the reserve in 1881, two years after it was founded by the Indian Reserve Commission.
Seabird is a modern, progressive communityof 1,150 nestled in the lush green valleys of the Fraser River system in southern British Columbia, beneath the snow-capped near-pyramid of Mount Cheam. It has elementary and high schools, a vocational school, a daycare, and a thriving, well-staffed and well-appointed medical centre which employs First Nations doctors and dentists and trained nurses.
Elder Maggie Pettis — who lost her brother, Cliff Pettis, to suicide five years ago, and then more recently her nephew, Brian Junior — has spent decades striving to improve health care and education at Seabird. She is now working on a suicide prevention study focused on returning to cultural teachings to strengthen Indigenous pride in each Seabird child.
In the past several years, nearly half a dozen young men in Seabird have died by suicide on the railroad tracks. Each seemed to have a similar trigger — the breakup of a relationship or a fight or disagreement with a loved one. “Sometimes they are too far gone; their spirit is lost, and it is hard to pull them back,” says Maggie.
Maggie knows everyone in Seabird, and she knows the struggles behind everyone’s smiles. She hands out her cellphone number to those in need of a sympathetic ear. When she sees Margo Jimmie and her 17-year-old daughter, Summer, at the health clinic, they both get an extra-warm greeting. Seabird Island First Nation Elder Maggie Pettis lost her brother Cliff to suicide five years ago, and more recently, her nephew Brian Junior.
Margo is learning how to live with the hollowness of grief, and the road is not easy. Margo looks as if she has just walked out of a downtown Vancouver office tower. Her jet-black hair is fashionably short and swept to the side. When I meet her, she wears a black cotton cardigan over black pants and a blouse with a black, pink and blue geometric print. Her long, hot-pink fingernails are filed into points like talons. On her ring finger, instead of polish, a jewel is affixed to the nail.
For Margo it has been three years, and the pain has not subsided. She knows it never will. Margo gets up every day and readies herself as if she were going to work. But she hasn’t been for three years. Not since Feb. 8, 2015. Not since her son, Bubbs, left her.
Margo raised Summer, Bubbs and their brother, Tristan, on her own after their father left. The children had no father figure until Margo met her current husband, nine years later. “It’s hard for a boy to adjust when they have always only known Mom,” she says. “So when a father figure comes in, it is hard for them to accept because they have no trust with males.”
She remembers Bubbs as a loving child, charming, caring — but he struggled with mental-health issues. When he was 5, he had uncontrollable temper tantrums which she thought were normal, just a child of a single mom acting out. She didn’t have good relationships or frequent contact with doctors or nurses, and mental health services are hard to access.
Once, she took Bubbs to the hospital, and after waiting eight hours to see a psychologist, he left feeling even more isolated than before. He was exhausted and had just told her whatever she wanted to hear so he could leave. They were given a phone number and told to call if he got any worse.
“That doesn’t work,” scoffs Margo. “It works by sitting and talking and getting to the bottom of the issues. The person with mental-health issues doesn’t understand what is normal and what is not.” She feels that mental-health workers need to invest more time in the quiet ones who bottle everything up. Those teens aren’t going to call for help.
Bubbs would think someone was following him, so he couldn’t stay in one place for too long and could never explain who was coming after him. Whenever he had one of those episodes, no matter where he was, Margo would pick him up and bring him home.
“He wouldn’t stay home for long. He’d take off. The more he’d take off, the more I’d find him. He’d get into relationships with girls. He already had a broken relationship with family members, and to go through a breakup with a girl was emotionally hard on him. I tried to explain to him that he would have many relationships in life and not all were going to stay. He had a whole life ahead of him,” she says as the tears flow down her face.
Her words never got through to her son. And what happened next was stunning. “Within the first year of his death, three of his friends passed away the same way,” she says. All suicides. All on the railroad tracks.
Bubbs left behind three children, two boys and a girl. Margo calls them her blessings.
Following her son’s death, Margo shut off her phone. Then, for whatever reason, one day she turned it back on. As soon as she did, she got a call from the mother of Bubbs’s friend Carlos.
“She said, ‘Margo, I am at my doorway.’ I asked if she was OK. She said, ‘No, I am not OK. I am packing right now. I have the RCMP at my door and they just told me my son has gone to be with your son.’ And I said, ‘What do you say?’ She said, ‘My son is gone and I find myself standing here in the doorway. Can you come help me?’ I said, ‘I will call you right back.’
“I phoned my aunt and told her what had happened. I told her Carlos’s mom was asking me to help her and I just didn’t have the strength … My aunt went over to help her. I am very fortunate my band was able to cover the family financially. And then we buried Carlos with my son.”
Two more of Bubbs’s friends died after that. “Each time I would fall, and it has only been three years, and I tell you it has taken me this long to get here,” she says. “I am still not back to work but I make myself get up and leave the house as soon as everyone else leaves. But I have so many triggers at home, it is unbelievable. I knew suicide hit very [hard], and it has been my reality since Bubbs left. I carried a lot of self-blame for the first two years. What-ifs, how, what could have.”
People who do not live in an Indigenous community cannot grasp what it is like to grow up where suicide is the norm. For too many Indigenous communities worldwide, life is immersed in the normalcy of death. Children sit in gym class at Seabird Island First Nation’s elementary school. Seabird is located along the Fraser River Valley in British Columbia, an hour and a half east of Vancouver
Natan Obed knows the impact of suicide. As a hockey player and also as a coach in Nunatsiavut and Nunavut, Natan has lost count of how many hockey-playing peers or children — or parents of children — have died by suicide. Natan has been a driving force behind the creation of the National Inuit Suicide Prevention Strategy, which was released on July 27, 2016. It is the only suicide prevention strategy in Canada that is co-ordinated on the national, regional and community levels.
Key to the program is identifying common risk factors and creating “a shared, evidence-based, Inuit-specific approach to suicide prevention across Inuit Nunangat.” Natan knows the risk factors are many, and that they can begin in the womb with exposure to alcohol. The factors multiply if the child grows up in an overcrowded home or experiences malnutrition, food insecurity, neglect, or sexual abuse. If a parent or a close relative dies by suicide, the risk increases.
The Inuit strategy identifies as priority areas: creating social equity, creating cultural continuity, nurturing healthy Inuit children from birth, ensuring access to a continuum of mental wellness services, healing unresolved trauma and grief, and mobilizing Inuit knowledge for resilience and suicide prevention.
At the heart of the suicides is the lack of health and social equity — health care, housing and a safe environment.
In the United States, it is estimated that Native American youth are “twice as likely to be exposed to domestic violence, sexual abuse, substance abuse, and poverty compared to other groups,” according to a May 2016 article “Native Americans facing highest suicide rates,” in the Lakota People’s Law Project. Theresa M. Pouley, the chief judge of the Tulalip Tribal Court in Washington State, argues that these factors result in Indigenous youth developing post-traumatic stress disorder similar to that experienced by soldiers who served in Afghanistan.
In Brazil, Indigenous people continue to be forcibly removed from their ancestral lands by domestic ranchers who often work for big multinational firms to produce crops such as sugar cane, palm oil and coffee. There are only 734,000 Indigenous people left in Brazil, accounting for 0.4 per cent of the country’s population, down from nearly five million at the point of contact during the 15th century. There are only 54 Indigenous nations left in Brazil.
To this day, Indigenous people in Brazil face continued attacks, marginalization and neglect. Since 2007, 833 Indigenous people have been murdered and more than 350 have died by suicide. Janete Morais, a Guarani law student at the Federal University of Rio Grande, comes from a reserve in northern Brazil that was set up before the 1988 constitutional change that strengthened Indigenous rights and environmental laws. She knows her people are lucky to have their own land; when she goes to school in the city, she passes Guarani people living on the street or in the gutters. “They live on the roads,” Morais says. “They don’t have a place to live.”
The Indigenous students and some professors at the university have been raising money to help the families survive. Morais says the continued trauma and societal marginalization wear down the will to live. “When something bad happens to them, their spirit becomes weak, and the first thing that comes to their mind is taking their own lives. They feel spiritually and psychologically weak,” she says.
Morais, now 35, thought about suicide many times, but she says a strong spiritual connection to her grandfather, a shaman, kept her alive.
Since the 1980s, researchers have reported on the rise of suicide “clusters,” defined as “serial suicides related in time, space, and etiology through a process of imitation.” When suicide becomes normalized, it is an ever-present option. In North America, this phenomenon has occurred among the Hopi, Navajo, Pueblo, Flathead and Wind River Nations, as well as in communities in northern Ontario and among Inuit.
On April 10, 2016, seven children between the ages of 9 and 14 from the northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat First Nation were admitted to the community’s 15-bed hospital for possible drug overdoses in an attempted suicide. There were 11 suspected suicide attempts within a 24-hour period.
According to research in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, data taken from the 2008-2010 First Nations Regional Health Survey showed that exposure to a previous familial generation that went through residential school is associated with an “increased risk for lifetime suicide ideation.” And having two generations of residential school history in your family increases the odds of “reporting a suicide attempt compared with having one generation.”
Two of Canada’s foremost researchers on youth suicide, the University of British Columbia’s Michael Chandler and the University of Victoria’s Christopher Lalonde, point out that among British Columbia’s 200 First Nations communities, it is estimated that Indigenous youth take their own lives at a rate between five and 20 times higher than that of non-Indigenous youth. Over the span of 10 years, youth suicide rates varied in “wildly saw-toothed ways” from one community to another.
Jack Hicks at the University of Saskatchewan believes Chandler and Lalonde’s work should have taken a harder look at levels of community trauma and sexual abuse. He notes that Chandler and Lalonde used data collected between 1987 and 1992 from 196 of British Columbia’s First Nations, and they found that 90 per cent of youth suicides occurred in just 10 per cent of the bands and that “some communities show rates some 800 times the national average while in others, suicide is essentially unknown.” However, suicide attempts, thoughts or ideation were not measured.
“If it were found that no one living on that street died by suicide during a five-year period, would we therefore describe the street as one where ‘suicide behaviour is essentially unknown’? Every human society we know of, present and past, experiences some degree of suicide behaviour.
“Why would Indigenous communities be otherwise?” Hicks asks. “Any very small population group may well go five or more years without a resident dying by suicide, but there will likely have been some amount of suicide ideation — and possibly suicide attempts.” The socio-economic realities of many communities, along with adverse childhood events such as sexual abuse, cannot be removed from the equation. This photograph of the Sami, taken at the turn of the last century, hangs in the Sami Parliament of Norway building in Karasjok. For thousands of years, the Sami lived following herds of reindeer, but attempts to assimilate them in Scandinavian society have reduced the number of herders who live in traditional ways.
For more than a century, Norway concentrated efforts on assimilating the Sami. The cornerstone of the policy was to achieve ethnic cleansing through the eradication of language and culture, and re-education and indoctrination through the school system and the adoption of Christianity. Harald Eidheim, one of the foremost scholars on the Sami, particularly during the postwar years, argued that one of the most significant issues affecting the Sami in Norway was the public’s perception of the people, who were regarded as “beggarly, old-fashioned, reactionary, and — in many circles — heathen.” As a result of the shame they experienced at school, the Sami hid their culture and traditions.
Simon Issát Marainen, poet and famous singer of traditional Sami songs called joik , was called home to manage the family herd of nearly 13,000 reindeer after his brothers Gustu and Heaika, 29 and 21 years old respectively, died by suicide in the same year. Simon remembers Gustu, the happy-go-lucky one, telling him he would never do that, that it would never happen. But ultimately he decided to end his life, alone among the reindeer, high up in the hills.
“I had never been 100 per cent with the reindeer, but I had to take over, and now I am with them every day,” says Simon. “I had a dream to make a career of my music, to travel all over the world, and I have been all over … but I don’t have that opportunity anymore.”
The life of a reindeer herder is not easy. The animals do not know international borders, and Norway is trying to discourage herders from moving along their traditional path north and has historically imposed fines on herders who trespass on private property. Simon’s family has received fines of 575,000 Norwegian kroner ($93,000 Canadian). The government is also selling the herding land to developers to build cottages for European vacationers. Simon Marainen’s two brothers, Gustu and Heaika, died by suicide in 2014. After they died, Simon, part of Norway’s Sami community, had to put a pause on his singing career to go home and tend to the family’s reindeer herd.
“We need this land for our animals. Without the land we can’t live,” Simon says. “My mom and dad are really worried. My parents are older now. I have two sisters but they don’t work with the reindeer. Our whole family is pressured from all sides. There is a big fight to live the Sami life.
“There isn’t anyone who believes in the reindeer herders; no one trusts us. My oldest brother, he was always so positive, so glad and happy, and then one day he was just gone. He finished his life when he was among the reindeer herd.
“But you can’t give up on your life, on your culture,” he says. “You belong to something, and without this we are nothing.”
If you’re experiencing emotional distress and want to talk, call the First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310. It’s toll-free and open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
ABOUT THE SERIES
The Atkinson Fellowship awards a seasoned Canadian journalist with the opportunity to pursue a yearlong investigation into a current policy issue. The award is a project funded by the Atkinson Foundation, the Honderich family and the Toronto Star.
Tanya Talaga won the 2017-18 fellowship to explore the causes and fallout of youth suicide in Indigenous communities. Talaga’s project is also being featured in the 2018 CBC Massey Lectures.
Talaga is a national columnist for the Star who specializes in Indigenous affairs. A two-time National Newspaper Award winner, her 2017 book, Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death and Hard Truths in a Northern City (House of Anansi Press) won the RBC Taylor Prize and the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.
Her new book, based on her Atkinson/Massey project, is titled All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward . It goes on sale Tuesday, Oct. 16.
Talaga’s Massey Lectures begin the same day in Thunder Bay. The free event starts at 7 p.m. at the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium.
The final four lectures will be delivered on:
Oct. 18 in Halifax at Halifax Central Library
Oct. 23 and 24 in Vancouver at York Theatre
Oct. 26 in Saskatoon at Broadway Theatre
Oct. 30 in Toronto at Koerner Hall
The lectures will be recorded and are due to be broadcast on CBC Radio the week of Nov. 12.