Letters of Hope – Eeyou Istchee launches writing campaign for Attawapiskat youth

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An Air Creebec flight scheduled to land in the northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat May 21 won’t just be carrying the usual mix of passengers and freight. Organizers of a Cree letter-writing campaign are working hard to fill it with hope.

The initiative was launched April 14 in Waskaganish as Cree leaders, gathered there for a regional health conference, reacted to news of a wave of suicide attempts among local youth in the 2,000-member community on the opposite shore of James Bay.

“Our staff was very, very touched and they wanted to do something,” explained Gaston Cooper, a spokesperson for the Cree-owned airline. “Everybody else in Quebec and Ontario and possibly all across Canada wanted to do something.”

The idea for a letter campaign to express solidarity with their Ontario brothers and sisters was quickly taken up by representatives of the Cree Health Board, Cree School Board and Cree Nation Youth Council during a meeting in Waskaganish.  

Mistissini health and social development director Ashley Iserhoff, who was selected to head the operation, said the purpose is “to show our solidarity as well as to show that people outside of their community care for them as well, to know their lives matter.”

The May 21 flight won’t just carry letters. The Cree Youth Council is currently raising funds to fill some of the 37 passenger seats with young Eenouch who want to show personal support for their western cousins.

Air Creebec is also volunteering its resources to fly in another 4,500 pounds of materials that have been donated to Attawapiskat youth, including books, games and sports equipment.

Air Creebec plane

The original aim was to get the letters to Attawapiskat in late April. But Goose Break, as it traditionally does, put everything on the backburner as communities slowed to a crawl while thousands head out to the bush to hunt and reconnect to the land.

“Goose Break is a very busy time,” Iserhoff acknowledged. He sees it as an important part of the healing process not just for Attawapiskat, but all Aboriginal communities.

“People are out on the land, which is nice. There is a lot of help and healing out there. It happens in all Aboriginal communities. When people go out to the bush, it changes perspectives and changes things.” 

A reconnection? Yes, he, agrees, a very different one from the wi-fi connections of modern living, which can contribute to the alienation of Cree youth.

“Life has certainly changed within the Cree world in terms of technology that’s available to us,” he explained. “Everything is done instantaneously. Facebook, email, social media changes a lot of things. In the Cree world, things were a lot simpler than they are today. We encounter cyberbullying, text-message bullying…  all that type of stuff that happens today.”

Technology has no doubt played a role in increasing youth alienation in the north, as it has in the south. But it means that bullying of isolated Indigenous youths now “can come from anywhere. Not just from within our communities, but from anywhere in the world,” Iserhoff observed.


Ashley Iserhoff

A return to old-school forms of communication like a letter-writing campaign is something Iserhoff hopes will actually change lives. He mentioned a young woman he talked to “who went through various changes in her life.” She received a note from someone else “reminding her of the purpose of her life, not to give up, not to lose sight of where they want to be, where they want to go in life.”

“That changed her perspective,” Iserhoff revealed, “knowing that someone outside of her support [circle] does care. I hope that with the various cards and letters that will come in from Cree youth as well as Cree families throughout Eeyou Istchee, we will be able to reach out to the community of Attawapiskat. Perhaps this will be an opportunity to build bridges and establish good relations with our brothers and sisters no matter where they live.”

The letter-writing campaign is a first step to healing. “My hope is things will change, that things can change.” Iserhoff said. “Change comes from individuals and those individuals affect our communities and our schools, our nation, and it goes throughout the world.

“We have to speak life to one another all the time. I know the challenges of our people are great, but the hope that we have always searched for is already within us as individuals. If we continue to speak with each other, that spark of hope, that spark of energy that our communities need is already there.”

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