Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Road to Hell

I wrote this several years ago and just came across it the other day. I saw the date and couldn't believe how many years have passed but how the story remains the same.

Friday, January 02, 2004
Word Count: 841
The Road to Hell

A young man from a remote northern First Nation community confesses that given the choice between life and death, he chooses a slow and painful death. The calm and deliberate testimony was captured on a homemade video last year.

The voice behind the camera asks, “Why are you doing this to yourself?” The boy pauses a moment, breath steaming in the sub-zero temperature. The sound of snow crunching beneath feet freezes in the midnight air.

Slowly he turns to face the camera. His eyes are dark, ancient pools. With slow, heavy gestures, he labours to form the words that will answer the question.

He drops to his knees and hunches over in the snow. Despite an effort he slurs his words. He tells the camera what an old Indian man once told him.

The video was shot over a three weeks period last winter. Every night all year long, volunteers gather to patrol their community. On the night the camera captures this young mans testimony the temperature is below -25 C. The temperature often reaches –40C and colder. Kids who sniff gas love this time of year. Lots of snowmobiles make finding gas easy.

The young man yanks off his gloves and drops them in the snow. He reaches behind and drags out his gasoline can. He places the small red jug beside his gloves.

His gaze locks on the camera. He gestures towards his gloves. “Let’s say these gloves are food,” he says. “This is nutritious, it builds strength and will make you healthy.” Then he points to his gas tank. “This is poison. It will rot you and will make you sick. Eventually it’ll kill you.”

With visible effort he points back to his gloves and repeats his lesson, “If you choose this you will have a healthy life. If you choose the gas,” he pauses and, stares into the camera lens, “You’ll die.”

A long silence follows. He looks back at his gas tank. His chin, slick from the gasoline vapours, sinks into his chest. His shoulders slump forward. He releases a long slow breath into the icy air.

Starring back up at the camera he says, “That is what an old Indian man told me. We all have choices in life. We can choose life if we want to.”

The boy leans into his bag of gas and huffs several times before lurching to his feet. Swaying, he stares into the camera one last time before disappearing into the bush, gas tank in hand.

It was early fall when I visited this community. Evidence of social distress was everywhere. Corners from orange and green plastic garbage bags, empty hairspray bottles, and the remnants of makeshift shacks litter the trails that thread through the bush that surround the community.

The wind off the lake whipped through back yards. Faded shirts and thinning sheets snapped in the wind. Dust whirls whipped into gusts as I walked along the dirt roads of the tiny community. Houses with no windows and front entrances covered with sheets greet visitors. And so do the children.

Everywhere I walked children were laughing and playing. Young men walked babies in colourful strollers, youth gathered in small groups, talking and playing amongst themselves. Women swapped stories and caught up with each other’s lives.

I saw a vibrant community. People have taken action to help heal and support kids that would otherwise slip through the cracks. They seek out those kids that would otherwise end up in drug re-habilitation programs or clients of corrections services — if they’re lucky. The unlucky wind up in the community graveyard.

Several years ago, there were forty active gasoline sniffers in this community. Today there are seven. Two of the young men from the video are in jail. The boy who chose gasoline over life is one of them.

How did this community succeed without support from government while so many other communities fail?

At an impromptu meeting I learned that several years ago approximately 20 community members took control and organized nightly volunteer patrols.

Council members, secretaries, health workers, and peacekeepers each take their turn. They risk their own lives to save the lives of their children, to save their community. The volunteers grew in numbers sometimes recruiting former sniffers to help them understand the problem and to help reach these kids. They needed to learn how to intervene and stop older kids from recruiting the younger ones.

Despite the despair, there is hope. Despite the problems, there are people working for solutions.

I went to the community thinking I might have some answers. I left humbled with more questions than answers. So many of us who travel through these communities enter with the best of intentions. We want to fix what is wrong, put right what is askew. The road to hell is paved with the best of intentions. And we continue to create environments where youth choose death.

The answers and solutions are already up there.


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