Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, April 20, 2016 1:34PM EDT
ATTAWAPISKAT, Ont. -- Out in the bush, a few kilometres from the First Nations reserve of Attawapiskat, about three dozen young Cree are learning basic outdoor survival skills -- from a Canadian Armed Forces soldier.
It's a tiny but important contribution by Canada's military to a community reeling from a series of suicides and suicide attempts by despairing children and teens, who all too often see little or no future for themselves.
Sitting in a semi-circle around a newly stoked fire, the giggling young men and women are paying various degrees of attention, as 2nd Lt. Wesley Jenkins, with the 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, speaks.
"I just want to talk about what to do if you ever find yourself in a position that you go out on the land and you find yourself lost," he tells his young charges, pausing as one of the teens' cellphones rings jarringly.
"Hey folks, if I'm talking, I need you to not."
This is hardly boot camp, with rigid rules and regimented discipline. It's not what's called for. Along with survival training and sleeping and eating outdoors is chat about combatting harassment or abuse, and talk about cultural practices that are disappearing.
Some of the youths chopping or gathering wood, erecting shelters or putting up a teepee are among the most vulnerable in Attawapiskat, a town normally comprised of about 2,100 people.
Now, it's almost a ghost town in light of the annual two-week Goose Break, when many families head out to camps to hunt geese returning from the south. School is out.
It's also a particularly risky time for those unable to go on the traditional hunt, because parents are working, have no money, or are perhaps too strung out to care or cope.
With little to do, nowhere safe to go, and few other supports, boredom can lead them down a tragically well-worn path to self-destruction.
"It's better to be out on the land," says Wilbert Shisheesh, 15, as he helps prepare the bush camp. "These activities keep me busy -- nothing to do while we're back home in town."
Shisheesh says he himself avoids the "kind of sad" trap of substance abuse some of his peers have fallen into.
Attawapiskat is one of 20 communities that Jenkins and his colleagues visit as instructors for the Canadian Rangers, Canada's reservist military presence in the North, and the Junior Rangers.
"With all the recent goings-on in Attawapiskat, we are here to continue to run our youth program as we have in the past, and to try to take some pressure off the community," says Jenkins, from Mississauga, Ont.
"It gets them out on the land with people they know and trust -- the Canadian Rangers -- (and) with their friends. It gives them an opportunity to look beyond what's been happening recently."
The camp is the kind of rare organized activity that community leaders say would go a long way towards helping the teens stay out of trouble. But despite this week's federal government promise to help build a youth community centre, Shisheesh says he may not be around to see that happen.
There's no future for himself in the isolated fly-in town, he says.
"No, I don't see it," he says. "I don't think too much about what I want to be. I just try to keep myself busy."