Life in First Nations communities in Ontario can be difficult for youth. Rates of poverty and unemployment are high. Cultural pride and self-esteem is often low. Health is poor and successful educational outcomes are challenging.
Since 2009, 18 youth in Moose Factory have committed suicide. More still have made suicide attempts. For a community of only 3,000, this has been devastating. Parents and community leaders have been left reeling, unsure how to help their children.
Project George was developed in response to the youth suicide crisis. Deputy Chief Charlie Cheechoo was advised by the late George E. Echum, an elder in the community: “Take the youth out into the bush. Nothing fancy, just take them out.” The youth also reached out to Charlie for help. As Charlie says: “They came to me and said, ‘Can you help us? We don’t know how to go out into the bush. We have parents who don’t know how to go into the bush.’” So Charlie took them into the bush and Project George was born.
Project George is open to any youth who wishes to learn about Cree culture and traditions, but works primarily with youth who have been affected by poverty, family breakdown and the recent suicide trauma. Our mission is to bring at-risk youth into the bush to help them to connect with the land and Cree traditions for the purpose of recovery and personal growth. The Cree believe that the land is the source of knowledge, food and wellbeing. Programming at Project George is based upon participating in and learning traditional Cree bush skills. Cree ethics such as hard work and sharing are emphasized. Being in the bush increases self-esteem, confidence, hope and optimism, and ultimately helps to shift negative beliefs and behaviours.
With the support of many donors and volunteers, Project George has been able to bring over 800 youth to camp since 2009. While the emphasis is on having fun, Project George leaders make it clear they are willing to talk about the grief and trauma over suicide rates in the community. Youth learn that they are not alone, that there are alternatives to despair and that life is worth living. Since Project George began, the number of youth suicides in the community has steadily dropped.
Our vision is to create a community where youth are hopeful about their future, and strong and resilient in dealing with life’s challenges.