About a month ago, while listening to the radio during his commute to work, Surrey teacher Jonathan Rempel felt like his heart was being squeezed in a vise.
He listened intently as the tragic stories of suicide and despair unfolded in the small community of Attawapiskat in northern Ontario.
Located at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River on James Bay, the small First Nation community was in crisis. Eleven young people had attempted suicide on one day – April 9, 2016 – and more than 100 had tried between September 2015 and April 2016. The reserve has a population of about 2,000.
A state of emergency was declared.
An English teacher and aboriginal teaching assistant at North Surrey Learning Centre, Rempel felt an immediate connection with the stories he was hearing on the radio. They echoed the experiences of many of his students who were dealing with similar despair in their lives.
“We are considered an inner-city school,” Rempel explained. “I felt like my students had a voice and could speak to this and offer authentic encouragement and hope to those kids.”
That’s when the “Letters to Attawapiskat” project was born.
Rempel felt sending personal correspondence to the students of Attawapiskat was an opportunity for his students to be an active part of their community, think about the world around them and make a difference in someone else’s life.
“Many of the students I teach feel marginalized in their community and haven’t been successful in the mainstream system for whatever reason,” he said. “This was a way for these kids to reach out in a positive way.”
Initially he only sought participation from his aboriginal students, but eventually the whole school became involved.
Students began doing research about the area and how poverty, isolation and the deplorable living conditions were affecting the residents and youth of Attawapiskat and how these factors were contributing to the current suicide crisis.
Many of the students were shocked at what they were learning and especially that it was happening in Canada.
They then wrote letters about themselves and their own struggles, and spoke about hope, perseverance and love for one another.
For Trinity Thomas, the letters were a way to express how she feels.
“I know what it’s like to lose someone and to feel hopeless,” she said. “Everyone has gone through hardships and can relate in some way, so I wrote how I was able to get through and to let them know they’re not alone.”
Part of Thomas’ letter reads as follows:
“We were homeless for about a month and we stayed at a homeless shelter while I still managed to go to school. We found a place in Surrey that we moved into without any furniture, heat or water.
“Personally, 2013 and 2014 were the worst years of my life, but without them I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Everything we do in our lives has a consequence and I wish I could’ve had more of a childhood than what I got.
“But I’m so grateful to be able to live with my family now, knowing that the grass is definitely greener on the other side. I truly believe that everything that happens to us happens for a reason.”
Her classmate Charina Leo said composing her letter helped put her life into perspective.
“I’m in foster care now and my foster family treats me well, so I wanted to tell them that even though things are tough, you can get through it,” she said. “I hope they write back.”
Rempel said he’s impressed how engaged the students have become.
“It’s definitely become more than just a school project. It has been a powerful learning experience.”
The letters were sent to the students in Attawapiskat this week.
Excerpts from some of the Surrey students’ letters:
‘There were many hard moments where I truly wanted to give up and I’m so glad I didn’t’
“There have been moments in my life where I have felt pain and hopelessness as a child. I grew up around bullies and drug addicts. I had to let my drug-addicted father know I still loved him and wanted him to get through this. There were many hard moments where I truly wanted to give up and I’m so glad I didn’t.
“What kept me going was my best friend, my family and my teachers. I couldn’t give up knowing that I was going to hurt all those people. I kept going and I kept fighting.
“If you ever feel like giving up please think about all of the people who care for you. Your life is precious. Please know that you are special and you deserve so much in life.
“I would like to share a quote with you that helps me every day: ‘No matter how you feel, get up, get dressed, show up and never give up’.”
‘My suicide attempts weren’t successful’
“My parents were in and out of my life. They were alcoholics and drug addicts. There was a lot of hate and pain involved in my childhood. I turned to alcohol for a way to escape the pain I was in. I was running away, drunk every night and had suicide attempts.
“My suicide attempts weren’t successful. I’m glad I’m here today. A few years ago, I would have never pictured my life the way it is now. I found someone who makes me happy.
“Don’t hurt yourself. You are more than your failures and your pain. There might be a war in your head, but it will soon be over. Every day is a new chance to change your perspective on life. Don’t let that chance go.”
‘Everything passes and you will make it out stronger, and remember you are loved’
“Back when I was 16, my dad left my brother an I on our own to be with his girlfriend. We lost our mom three years before and our dad was a huge alcoholic and blamed us for everything. He drank till he passed out every night. Eventually my dad got clean but left us for a better life. When I was only 16 and my brother 18. Never had me or my brother felt so hopeless. I know you are going through hardships too, and it’s not just you, it’s your community, but you can get through it. Everything passes and you will make it out stronger, and remember you are loved.”