Mistissini’s Voyageur Memorial School was closed last November 26 after a student confided to a teacher that he had planned on two different occasions the previous September to bring a gun into the school and shoot certain students who had bullied him, and then turn the gun on himself.
Acting Principal Bjorn Olson closed the school for five days in order to put extra security in place and reassure teachers, students and parents.
According to a letter sent to community leaders in December, the boy was talked out of the attacks by another student. The boy said he was motivated by his newfound Christian faith to confess to a teacher in November.
The student was examined by a specialist in Montreal and judged to pose no further risk. The student said he welcomed the psychiatric attention as it would make him stronger and he had already gotten respect from other students for coming forward.
The boy has not returned to school since the confession.
The scare led to a series of meetings, the first with the teachers, staff and Mistissini Public Safety Department. It was decided then to develop an emergency plan for the school.
A second meeting was with teachers, staff and students and some parents December 3. Though 150 students attended only about 30 showed up the following day for classes. Other meetings to inform and consult religious leaders were held December 7 and 10.
Psychologists contracted by social services and the health clinic were present at these organized meetings.
According to a letter by the Mistissini clinic‚Äôs four doctors to community leaders, the incident was a “wake-up call.”
“The recent school situation has not come out of nowhere,” the physicians wrote. “We need to react and support the children and parents in this community who have been asking for our help for a very long time. In Mistissini there has been a recent increase in the amount and degree of violence.”
Ed Note: Only very rarely will the Nation hold back an important story such as this one. The Nation editorial board believes in the public’s right to know. We debated and discussed how to deal with such a sensitive and possibly panic-inducing incident. We also considered the Cree way of thinking. We did not wish to sensationalize this story but hope that by turning the focus on the community and its responses rather than about one person’s actions we can help motivate positive change. The Nation will attend public meetings in Mistissini scheduled to address this incident and related issues and bring the results to all of our readers.
The December 2 letter also referred to a recent stabbing death and “savage” assaults on young people. “It is only a matter of time,” the letter warned. “The pressure continues to build, and at some point there will be a major explosion, where everyone in the community will be directly affected.”
The incident provoked the school and community to take action against violence. A new committee, composed of police, doctors, social workers, teachers, administrators, Elders, band members, guidance counselors, church leaders and school support staff, was struck to look for comprehensive solutions. The Band Council has placed Elders in the school and is looking at hiring a full-time psychologist.
As well, the police department is considering assigning a fulltime constable to befriend students and promote the prevention of drugs and alcohol use. The school has increased its security at the school by placing a security guard at the door to sign students in and out of the building. Similar security may be installed in other public buildings, such as daycares, the sports complex, Cree School Board and Band Office.
Deputy Chief Kathleen Wootton of Mistissini Band Council told the Nation there would be a community meeting on this matter January 23. Wootton said the Band Office, the local high school, Cree School Board and the Cree Health Board have been working together on the file.
“The boy’s reaction was a result of a lot of issues coming to a head,” Wootton said. “It is because health issues were never a priority. It’s hard to measure the emotional aspect of the community and set tangible goals. Our kids are paying because we didn’t have the support and resources in place. We have to be more open about these type of issues both locally and regionally.”
A report will be made to the Mistissini Band Council before the community meeting and the results shared with all.
Wootton said the community is also looking at having professionals such as a child psychologist, a social worker and an Aboriginal Youth Worker being hired full-time and in place at the local school.
“We need to have someone on a full-time basis for the youth,” said Wootton. “The Cree Board of Health and Social Services has the resources to do this if we make it a priority.”
She added the community is appealing to the CSB and CBHSS to work with them to make things happen for the benefit of all residents.
“I feel the way the school is now there has to be the political will and more to fix it. It will need the community and the leadership to correct the problem,” Wootton said.
The crisis followed on the heels of a warning last October 30 by all the Principals of the Cree School Board to Grand Chief Matthew Mukash and the Grand Council about the startling increase in drug and alcohol abuse among the youth of all nine communities.
“On a daily basis, we have to deal with these problems including: suspending students involved, meeting with parents, reporting these incidents to the Police, to Social Services and Youth Protection,” the Principals wrote.
“The types of substances abused include: hard drugs including Crystal Meth, alcohol, gas/propane, liquid paper, etc. It is a fact that more and more young children are getting caught in these addictions, some as young as 8 years old.”
The Principals recommended community curfews, prevention programs, help lines, and more recreational opportunities, among others, to help curb the epidemic of substance abuse. This will be a topic in a meeting in Mistissini on January 15.
In their letter, the Mistissini clinic doctors said children are inheriting this behaviour from parents and other family members.
“The use of drugs and alcohol by many people is an extremely large, widespread problem in the community,” the doctors wrote. “People initially turn to alcohol or drugs to hide emotional pain and mental stress in their lives but it quickly spirals out of control. People who are drunk or high get involved in fights that require police intervention and can end up with them being jailed. People get hurt, and serious cases are transferred out of the community.
“Husbands and wives argue over alcohol and drugs, and it can result in conjugal violence. Children see this every day. They may be neglected because their parents are high or drunk. These are the same kids that then go to school hungry. They are often angry and they take it out on other kids at school. This is one of the sources of bullying in the community. If we do not change, the children will continue to carry on this cycle of self-damage. Intervention is needed to break this cycle,” they continued.
The doctors stated that the majority of the cases they deal with are in some way related to mental health. “We see it as suicide attempts, depression, anxiety, sexual abuse, conjugal violence, physical and emotional abuse, substance abuse and child neglect.”
They pointed out that though the suicide rates are the same as the rest of Quebec, suicide attempts are eight times higher. Suicide attempts are a cry for help the doctors said.
As with the Band Council the doctors point out a need for professional help on a regular basis.
The doctors feel that Mistissini can be a leader for other communities who may be dealing with similar problems.
“The issues brought up by this case have been simmering for a long time. They are worsening rather than improving. We can make a great difference by focusing our efforts together on this issue. We can greatly improve the lives of people in the community by offering them support at the individual and family level in a consistent and long-term way. This is really to improve the lives of the children. It started with the cry for help by a child. Let us heed this voice. They are the future, let’s do it for them.”