Ryerson art exhibit raising awareness about aboriginal youth suicide

WATCH: Now, some of the surviving youth are working through their pain with art. Carey Marsden reports. 

TORONTO – Youth from a troubled reserve 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay are showcasing their artwork at Ryerson University Friday.

Shania Sakanee’s paintings will be among them. But she won’t be there to see it.

The teenager killed herself last month just before the exhibit was originally supposed to open before her death postponed it.

Shania’s suicide was one of eight in the 300-person Neskantaga First Nation in the past year. In that same time period, 20 teens tried to take their own lives. The community declared a state of emergency.

“Recently we lost three youth through suicide,” said Kelvin Moonias, a councillor on the reserve. “The whole community was impacted. Everybody knows everybody and we’re probably related in some ways to the whole community and everybody is close.”

Story continues below advertisement

Suicide rates among Canada’s aboriginals are about twice that as the overall population, according to the London-Middlesex Canadian Mental Health Association.

And it’s even higher for youth, according to the health organization. Statistics suggest that suicide for youth between the ages of 10 and 29 living on reserves is five to six times higher than their peers in the general population.

Though the gallery is primarily a means for the aboriginal youth in the Neskantaga First Nation to express themselves, the gallery also serves to raise awareness about the staggering rate of youth suicide of aboriginal youth across the country.

North-South Patnership – an organization that works with 30 communities in Ontario – has been working with the Neskantaga First Nation since October. Kelvin Moonias asked for their help in the wake of multiple youth suicides.

That led to 11 Ryerson students, a professor, a photographer and North-South partnership officials to travel to the community in May.

The group wanted to try and help aboriginal youth work through the crisis with art and music.

“On the last night of our trip in May, Shania was there with us all night, painting,” said Lauren Akbar of North-South partnership. “And I only knew Shania for a short time and just having her there with us the whole night and encouraging her to join in and paint, it was just so special that she’s a part of this and that [her art] is here.”
Story continues below advertisement

Josh Moonias was there with Shania and Lauren that night in May painting. Now some of his work is being displayed. Much of his art, he said, was inspired by his fight with depression.

“They came from my depression, everybody’s depression,” he said. “When I draw, I think of sad people mostly right. There are sad faces on most of them, tears on most of them.”

When the North-South partnership first came to his reserve, he stayed away from them but opened up in their last few days and showed them some of his art. They liked it and he said that appreciation inspired him to continue.

“I’m glad they came too, otherwise I wouldn’t be here showing my stuff to whoever comes here,” Moonias said. “From there, I realized, you could change people’s lives with art. I want to do more of that.”

-With files from Carey Marsden