As a plane flies into Attawapiskat it passes over this frozen river. Temperatures in the winter regularly dip to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
Attawapiskat in Ontario, Canada, is in a state of emergency after 11 of its residents attempted suicide in one day. But this crisis isn’t a complete surprise to the people of Attawapiskat. Since September, more than 100 people have attempted suicide. It’s a problem without a pattern—those suffering are young and old, male and female.
When a similar series of suicide attempts happened in 2012, French Canadian photographer Renaud Philippe noticed something missing from the media coverage.
“There was nothing that made me understand who these people were, nothing that made me understand what was life in this community,” he says. “The media was just focused on news. So I wanted to go to figure out what is it like to live in that kind of place—which is located so near to Toronto, Quebec, Montreal, but we know nothing about them.”
The First Nations peoples are aboriginal groups that were in Canada long before white settlers arrived. Traditionally they were nomadic, hunting and fishing and migrating with the seasons. But as is most often the case in histories of colonization, the white-led government forced a change in this lifestyle. In the late 19th century, the Indian Act pushed native peoples to isolated reserves, and tried to assimilate them into white culture. People in the reserves don’t own their homes or the land. Instead, a council of First Nations leaders is in charge of the ever-growing list of repairs needed on the residents’ homes. It’s not uncommon for houses to be condemned because of sewage backups or insufficient insulation to protect from temperatures that drop to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit in winter. When the houses are condemned, families move in with relatives. Sometimes more than 20 people are crammed into two-bedroom homes.
While witnessing these lives, Philippe says, “I had a feeling I was taking pictures not of the present, but of the consequences of the past.”
Attawapiskat is an isolated community of about 2,000 people on the edge of James Bay. The only way for people and supplies to come in or out is by air or an ice road that’s only open two months out of of the year. When Philippe arrived in Attawapiskat, what he saw was “shocking.”
“I’ve been in a few places, like after earthquakes or in refugee camps, where I've seen people suffer a lot,” he says. “But in Attawapiskat it was different. You can feel it when you're there. Life seems to be really heavy, really hard.”
Philippe did not immediately receive a warm welcome. But after a few days of talking to residents, he met a family who let him live with them for two weeks. The lack of opportunities was striking to him. Unemployment is rampant. Some people work in a nearby DeBeers mine, others hold jobs within the town, and many are on government assistance. Phillipe says the parents of the family he lived with were on Oxycontin, a common, yet expensive, drug in the town.
Even school presents little hope to some of the residents. In the two weeks Philippe stayed with the family, the children never went. In First Nations reserves, dropout rates are much higher than they are off the reserves.
There were glimmers of cheer, though—women gathering for a card game, children playing hockey on a homemade rink, a father tenderly washing his son’s hair in the sink to limit the exposure to contaminated water. “There are many bad things to tell,” Philippe says, “but there was so much love in this family. This is important for me to say: They want to live like everyone wants to. They want to be in peaceful place, in a loving family, creating an objective for the future.”