Ontario professionals volunteer time, money to help remote Ontario First Nation

PIKANGIKUM FIRST NATION, ONT.—In the heart of Toronto’s financial district, the domain of lawyers, stockbrokers and investment bankers, Bob White is chairing a conference call.

The participants aren’t dialing in from New York or Hong Kong, but Pikangikum, a remote, fly-in First Nation community, 400 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay.

“It’s minus-14 here today,” Pikangikum’s school principal, Melanie Doyle, tells the room, her voice emanating from the ceiling in godlike fashion. “Some of kids are coming to school with just a hoody. We need coats, gloves, hats — just the basics.”

It’s hard to fathom she’s in the same province as this cosy, upscale office on the 41st floor of the TD Bank Tower, with expansive views over Lake Ontario.

This is a meeting of the Pikangikum Working Group, a gathering of Ontario professionals who give their own time and dime — even the meeting space is donated — to assist one of the province’s most impoverished First Nations, a settlement of about 2,800 people who live in 450 homes, most of which have no running water or indoor toilets. Everything in the working group is done in consultation with the community, based on needs and what the group thinks is achievable.

Read more here:


Updates on progress being made in Pikangikum, from the working group

Hello friends of Pikangikum,

Thank you for your ongoing solidarity with the people of Pikangikum First Nation.

The following is a summary of the progress we have made in collaborating with Pikangikum First Nation on implementing the projects we talked about at the last meeting of the Pikangikum First Nation Working Group on Friday, March 27, 2015.


  • 150 Laptop Computers were delivered to Pikangikum’s Eenchokay Birchstick School in early May. As of March 2015, the school had approximately 750 students: 180 In high school, 600 in elementary and 70 in kindergarten. They have less than 80 computers for all of them.  Thank you Corporations for Community Connections and Siemens for providing the computers and air transportation to Pikangikum.
  • LED light bulb installation: Approximately 3600 incandescent light bulbs were replaced with LED bulbs in each of the approximately 450 homes in Pikangikum to reduce energy consumption and allow for the installation of the water and wastewater systems in 10 more homes. Thank you Siemens/Osram/Sylvania for the LED bulbs and air transportation to Pikangikum.
  • 500 KW Generator: The generator has been delivered and will be used to provide power for the hockey rink, the main source of play and entertainment for the children and the community. Because of the limited the capacity of the existing diesel generating system the hockey ring was often closed during the high energy demand times to prevent blackouts..  Thank you Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) for the diesel generator and delivering it to Pikangikum.  Please see the attached press release.


  • Water and wastewater systems in 10 more homes: The Anglican Church’s Primates World Relief and Development Fund have offered another $100,000 and Chief and Council have arranged for approximately $80,000 for funding for trainees from the Sioux Lookout Area Aboriginal Management Board (SLAAMB). The project cannot start until Frontiers Foundation have raised the additional $80,000 needed to complete the project. Donate to Frontiers Foundation through CanadaHelps.org or call Marilyn at 1-416-690-3930. You will receive a charitable tax receipt for every donation.
  • Youth Lumber Cooperative: Train 10 young Pikangikum high school graduates how to harvest their own trees and produce housing grade lumber using a portable saw mill already in Pikangikum.  Within 6 months these youth would have full time jobs providing a product desperately needed for housing, the new school and planned hunting and fishing camps for tourists.
  • Youth Internet Cafe: Building and furnishing a meeting space for youth with access to the internet and food.
  • Food Sovereignty Strategy as Climate Change Adaptation.  This initiative starts with providing the newly formed Pikangikum Women’s Group with support from a consortium of NGO’s to create a Food Cooperative in Pikangikum.  The women would be trained and employed to receive and distribute food at wholesale prices, use the freezers provided in the project to store game for distribution out of season and teach community members how to enhance their diet with fresh fruit and vegetables.

Raising Funds for Pikangikum Projects:

Some of the many activities taking place to raise $ for all of the above projects include (Please let me know if we have missed one you are involved in):

  • The Anglican Church of Canada is constantly organizing events to raise funds throughout Canada for water in Pikangikum through Bishop Mark MacDonald’s Pimatiziwin Nipi group.
  • Dave Steeves has probably made over 100 presentations at Anglican, United and Catholic Churches as well as Rotary clubs and to his own family who contributed to the Pikangikum Water project.
  • Bing Leblanc and Bob White made a presentation to the 2015 IEEE International Humanitarian Technology Conference (IHTC) held at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on June 3, 2015.  The presentation (attached) is called ‘Collaborating with Pikangikum First Nation toward resilience through technologies for water and sanitation’.
  • The Frontier Foundation is having its annual fund raising breakfast on June 25 at 7:30 am at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church in Toronto (all are welcome).  Bob White will be the speaker will and he looks forward to seeing you there.


Dave, Bob and Bing

Facts and useful links regarding indigenous issues

Indigenous peoples in Canada comprise First Nations people, Inuit and Métis. They account for 4.3 per cent of the national population – 1,400,685 people – and live on reserves across Canada from British Columbia to Nova Scotia.

Traditionally, First Nations people had unlimited access to large expanses of Canadian land, which was sparsely populated.

From the late 18th century onwards, European colonists forced these nomadic hunters and trappers onto tracts of land – reserves – and encouraged aboriginals to assimilate into their culture.

These efforts eventually resulted in forced integration, through a residential school system that removed more than 150,000 aboriginal children, sometimes as young as six, from their homes, and placed them in Christian-run boarding schools.

There they were subjected to extreme cultural suppression, emotional deprivation and physical, and at times, sexual abuse.

The government-operated residential schools were established in the 1840s, and the last one closed in 1996.

The ongoing impact of residential schools has been felt through several generations and has contributed to various social problems.

In 2008 the government of Canada apologised for Canada’s role in the operation of the schools and established a truth and reconciliation commission.

Historically, suicide was a very rare occurrence among First Nations and Inuit. It was only after contact with Europeans and the subsequent effects of colonialism that suicide became prevalent.

Rates of suicide for aboriginal youth in Canada are considered to be among the highest in the world.


A letter to all Canadians written by former chief

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

Research on suicide in Aboriginal people

Information on the Sixties Scoop

Hope comes to Pikangikum in the form of running water, a new school and an unique policing project

Jennifer Hough

Sitting in the spotless kitchen of the 13-strong Turtle household in Pikangikum, a remote fly-in First Nations – Canadian indigenous people – settlement in northwestern Ontario, the effect of hot gushing water on the home is clear.

Seven children scurry around with smiling, freshly washed faces and damp hair. Before the water, the children just didn’t get bathed that often, shrugs their aunt, Roberta Turtle.

They are healthier now, she says. They don’t get skin rashes anymore and don’t have to trek outside in freezing temperatures for water at one of the communities’ four standpipes, dotted between some 460 houses, home to upwards of 2,600 people.

In a province of 250,000 lakes, it’s hard to imagine that water and plumbing is lacking in about 400 homes in Pikangikum, affecting the ability to cook, clean and bathe. Not even Paddy Peters, the soft-spoken yet tenacious chief of the Ojibwe community – 1,400km northwest of Toronto – has running water in his three-bedroom home.

Water and sewers

“I have my outhouse that I go to every day, every night,” he says, adding that he shares the house with 12 family members. “The majority of my people don’t have running water or sewers. There were plans . . . but the government shelved them about 10 years ago.

“When I try to bring these projects back, every time I am told [by the government] there is no money,” the chief says.

The situation pushes many to despair. Three years ago, the tiny, once anonymous community, where winters can last from October to May with temperatures as low as minus 40, was flung into the national spotlight in Canada, not because of its infrastructural issues, but a spate of youth suicides.

A report (the Office of the Chief Coroner’s Death Review of the Youth Suicides at the Pikangikum First Nation 2006-2008) shocked Canadians. It found that Pikangikum was “severely deprived”, even when compared with other First Nations living on reservations.

“Pikangikum is an impoverished, isolated community where basic necessities of life are absent. Poverty, crowded substandard housing, gainful employment, food and water security are daily challenges,” it stated.

Most troubling was the solvent abuse problem it uncovered.

“In Pikangikum, young girls (8-10) self-reported that as many as 27 per cent had tried sniffing gasoline. Exact numbers are unknown, and it is estimated that there are as many as 300 solvent-abusers in the community,” the study found.

On a broader note, it pointed to the effect of colonialism, which dispossessed tribes of their traditional lands and forced them on to reserves. Children were sent to residential schools to “assimilate” them, destroying culture, language and family ties.

Proud community

Chief Peters himself is a residential school survivor (see panel above) who didn’t finish high school, though he started – not a common occurrence here. He is weary of all the bad press his proud community has had to endure since the report.

But he’s not interested in sugar-coating life in Pikangikum either. “We are still in the same situation as we were back then,” Peters says of the coroner’s study.

“We have yet to see improved conditions my people can feel happy about. We have our share of problems . . . but if people are living in conditions like I described, is it any wonder people abuse alcohol or sniff gas?”

Toronto-based engineer Bob White, who works in developing countries all over the world, felt compelled to help after reading the coroner’s harrowing report.

“It was devastating to read, but to see that the root cause was because of infrastructural issues, I thought, that’s something I can help with.”

He and others set up the Pikangikum Working Group and raised enough money, through religious congregations in southern Ontario, to install water and sewage systems in 10 homes last year, the Turtles among them.

Another engineer, Dave Steeves, in charge of fundraising for the group, educates people on what’s happening in their own province.

“Most people don’t even know what’s going on. The focus has always been outreach to other countries. But as you describe this situation, they recognise we have to clean up our own backyard, and that these are basics that have to be given to Canadians,” he says.

But there’s only so much work a small charity can do.

About 200 new homes are needed to ease chronic overcrowding; sometimes four generations share a modest abode. This year, seven were built.

And so the knock-on effects – suicide, alcohol and solvent-abuse – continue.

Solvent-abuse is pervasive in children and teens. Hundreds of teens sniff gas, and small children, mimicking older siblings, have been seen with bags over their faces. Of the deaths reviewed in the coroner’s report, the majority had been sniffing at the time.

Compounding matters, upwards of 500 children may not be attending school.

Despite these huge challenges, a wind of change is blowing. A community-led forestry initiative is set to provide many jobs in the future. Construction has begun on a federally funded $55 million school, and a police-led youth intervention programme is having great results.

Distressed youth

Seeing the distress of youth in Pikangikum, Supt Ron van Straalen, regional commander of the northwest region, realised police had to engage them in a meaningful way.

“We were seeing some huge tragedies . . . at times upwards of six kids pass away in a week. It’s a huge loss and devastating for everyone. We wanted to see what we could do, as police, to turn the tide here,” he says.

The result is Project Journey, an evidence-based substance-abuse programme based on a model for Cherokee youth, from New Mexico. “This is a radical change for policing, in fact it’s not policing and is usually delivered by social services,” says Supt van Straalen.

In place for almost a year, and funded by the government for four more, the programme is bringing about improvements. “We are seeing dramatic reductions in violent youth crime. We are on to something big here.

“It’s not a summer camp or a one-week programme, it’s 365 days a year. We are trying to give kids a normal childhood filled with ideas, and bring them back to school.”

Food as incentive

Melanie Doyle, principal of the Eenchokay Birchstick School, uses more overt tactics to entice students back to school: food and water.

“We work really hard to make a positive environment in the school. We give them breakfast, lunch . . . Food and water are big issues here.”

Her mission is to support those who complete high school to continue their education. At the moment, graduation rates are low. “I want the kids to go out of the community and continue their education and then come back and make Pikangikum stronger.”

Doyle laments the inequalities she sees – it’s a well-known fact in Canada that First Nations children do not get as much funding as the rest of the population, though they are most in need.

“I just want the kids to have an equal opportunity here, like the rest of the province. Students down in southern Ontario don’t have to think about food, water, clothing . . . It’s not an equal playing field.

“I think people [in the rest of Canada] are in denial about what’s going on. They don’t want to know about the problems here. This is like Africa in Ontario.”

For the chief and his people, it’s just home. “We love living on this land,” the chief says. “This is our homeland. We were born here. We will die here.”

Glimmer of hope for a impoverished northern First Nation community? #Pikangikum

Tomorrow morning I’m travelling to the remote northern First Nation community of Pikangikum.

I’m not quite sure what to expect. I’ve read extensively about the reserve of 2,400 people, and its past troubles.

A 2011 report by the Ontario Coroner, following a spate of youth suicides, states:

“Pikangikum is an impoverished, isolated First Nations community where basic necessities of life are absent. Running water and indoor plumbing do not exist for most residents. Poverty, crowded substandard housing, gainful employment, food and water security are daily challenges. A lack of an integrated health care system, poor education by provincial standards and a largely absent community infrastructure are uniquely positioned against the backdrop of colonialism, racism and social exclusion arising from the historical plight of First Nations people including the effect of residential schools. These all contribute to the troubled youth, who appear to exist in a dysphoric state, caught between the First Nations traditions and cultures of their forefathers, and contemporary society which they are poorly equipped to navigate and engage.”

In advance of the trip, the chief gave me a stern warning: “We don’t want any more negative media coverage.”

I hope I can fulfll both the chief’s request and adhere to my journalistic integrity at the same time. I’ve a feeling it might be difficult.

But I’m not going to look at the negatives. They’ve already been widely dissected. I am going to witness the work of a group of people, mainly engineers, from Toronto who’ve taken it upon themselves to raise money for the community and help them to help themselves. They are installing water systems, looking to set up a portable saw mill, and a range of other initiatives.

Progress is slow, but vital. They’ve already installed water system into 10 homes. That’s ten families who no longer have to trek to water points for everyday basic needs, or go outside in sub zero temperatures to go to the bathroom.

Tomorrow I get to travel to Pikangikum, a rare opportunity, and see for myself what the community – and those trying to help them – are up against.

Watch this space if you want to learn more about some of Canada’s most vulnerable and isolated people.