'People are treating us like we're nothing': Attawapiskat teen talks struggles
Rebecca Hookimaw, 16, poses for a photograph in the northern Ontario First Nations reserve in Attawapiskat, Ont., on Thursday, April 21, 2016. (Nathan Denette / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, April 24, 2016 11:27AM EDT
ATTAWAPISKAT, Ont. -- Thirteen-year-old Sheridan Hookimaw killed herself on the banks of the river that flows through Attawapiskat, ultimately sparking a crisis that has now drawn international attention to her isolated First Nations community.
The sickly girl, who had to be flown out weekly for medical appointments, recorded video messages to her family saying she wanted to end her pain, and telling them not to blame themselves.
Since then, as many as 100 others in Attawapiskat -- a community of 2,100 people -- have apparently tried to kill themselves, sparking panic among the First Nation's leaders, who recently declared a state of emergency in a desperate cry for help.
Among them is the big sister Sheridan left behind.
"Every morning when I wake up, when I don't see my sister there or when I don't hear her voice, I feel so lonely without her," Rebecca Hookimaw, 16, says at the home they shared.
"I just tell myself: 'She's out of town, she's at her appointment.' I still don't want to believe she's gone."
Beyond the grievous personal loss, Hookimaw's acquaintance with desolation runs deep. Her eyes speak of things no teenager should have to know about.
She grew up with her grandparents rather than with her mom and dad, she says. Her father disappeared from her life, leaving a void, although she vacillates between whether or not it still bothers her.
Her background has also helped her understand why her peers -- most from damaged families living in over-crowded, frequently substandard houses in which drug and alcohol addictions wreak havoc -- might want to kill themselves.
"I've been through that, too," she says, waving her long black hair from her face. "I started drinking and doing drugs because I couldn't handle the pain anymore."
There was also bullying: people called her fat and ugly, she says. Adding to her woes, her four-year-old cousin was killed by a truck a few years ago as she rode her bike on a rutted street -- there are no sidewalks and few safe places for kids to play in Attawapiskat.
By last fall, when her sister sought out the means with which to end her life, Hookimaw had already tried suicide several times.
"I never made it through, but my sister did," she says. "I got mad about it and sad about it, but I'm starting to think that God or whatever didn't want her to be in pain or suffer anymore, and he gave me another reason to live, I guess."
Sheridan's death initially pushed Rebecca to further alcohol abuse -- the community is officially dry although liquor can be obtained -- but the tragedy also prompted the young woman to try to turn her life around.
Now, she says, she's trying to support other teens who may be teetering on the edge. She wants them to know that suicide is not the answer.
"I tell people things I can't even tell myself," Hookimaw says. "If you ever think about taking your life away, don't do it. Suicide ends your pain but it will go on to somebody else, and it's just going to keep on going."
A few nights ago, yet another teen in Attawapiskat was airlifted for treatment after cutting at her neck. A day earlier, federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett had flown in to talk to the chief about the deep-rooted crisis.
Bennett also got an earful from young residents about their wants and needs. Hookimaw delivered an emotional, unscripted speech that came from her heart.
She says she wanted to make it clear that First Nations people are tired of being third-class citizens in their own land.
"People are treating us like we're nothing. We're not different from everybody. We're all human," she says. "If we were like white or whatever, they'd help us out right away, but we're native."
Bennett has gone. The glare of the media is fading, leaving the still-forlorn young woman trying to move beyond the suicide crisis that is weighing on both her and other First Nations communities across Canada.
"I hope everything changes in Attawapiskat one day, because I have little brothers and I don't want them growing up the way I grew up."