As darkness falls over the Wapekeka First Nation in northern Ontario, the flood lamps go on at the outdoor rink — not because a game is about to be played, but to bathe the nearby woods with a bit of light in the hope it will deter young people who might be thinking about sneaking in to harm themselves.
About the same time, small teams of uniformed Canadian Rangers — a sub-group of the Canadian Armed Forces reserve that serves northern and isolated communities — fan out across the fly-in village carrying flashlights and radios, ready to assist if a report comes in about a suicidal youth.
Their job is not to intervene, just to be the eyes and ears for local police and mental health professionals. But each ranger is equipped with a first-aid kit and knife — just in case they need to cut down a child who might be found hanging from a tree.
“It’s really hard to put into words. I don’t think you can get it across to people to understand what we see and what this community is going through,” said Warrant Officer Barry Borton, a Canadian Army instructor, who flew in on Sunday to help oversee a team of about 20 Ranger volunteers.
“To be here, it’s something else.”
The arrival of the Rangers in the Oji-Cree community of 430 people comes on the heels of an emergency declaration by the Wapekeka First Nation chief and band council last week.
Three pre-teens have died by suicide this year in the community, located about 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. The latest one happened on the night of June 13 when a 12-year-old girl hanged herself underneath an awning at the community rink.
The Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nations across northern Ontario, including Wapekeka, has recorded 14 suicides so far this year — 10 by hanging. Six of the individuals, including the three in Wapekeka, were between the ages of 10 and 14.