AOK youths learn first-hand lessons regarding life choices in light of recent community events

by Alicia McCutcheon

AUNDECK OMNI KANING—Events that have rocked Island communities over the past month have caused the chief, council and the community of Aundeck Omni Kaning (AOK) to sit up and take a long, hard look at the path its youth is choosing, and to extend a helping hand, a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on.

AOK played host to a youth conference on Friday where high school and some public school students were given the opportunity to spend the day hearing the often tragic and moving stories of guest speakers and to share their thoughts.

“We need to address some of the issues we’ve been facing in the community,” said Peter (Benji) Nahwegahbo, band manager for AOK. “The car accident, drug bust and the suicide in Birch Island. We need to encourage the community workers and parents to take more of a proactive role in the youth in light of what’s going on.”

The car accident Mr. Nahwegahbo spoke of was front and centre in the minds of the adolescents in the community centre Friday, with almost everyone having a connection with at least one of the youths involved in the accident, as three of the four victims were from the community.

The four youths were driving home from Espanola on the morning of Saturday, April 2 when they failed to negotiate a turn and crashed into a rock cut near the Sunshine Alley turnoff at Birch Island sending the driver, Bo Larabie, flying out of the truck. As a result of the life-threatening injuries he sustained, he was airlifted to the Sudbury Regional. Alcohol was a factor in the crash, the police reported.

Debbie Shawana, Mr. Larabie’s aunt, was at the conference and told The Expositor that her nephew was still in Sudbury, soon to be transferred to Toronto for intense rehab. He will remain in hospital for the foreseeable future.

While early diagnosis of the young man’s mobility looked bleak, he has since begun to rally, leaving the intensive care unit and is reporting feeling in his legs, his aunt said.

Shirley Mandoshkin, a Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NADAP) worker for the community, talked to the group about the various types of addictions that affect the people of AOK and that, “there is a large group of people to help those who may be facing these problems.”

“It’s a small enough community that you can speak out and make change,” she continued. “In 10 years, you will be the ones running this community, behind the chief’s desk or my desk or the finance officer’s desk. Now is the time to inform yourself. You’ve got workers, teachers, elders and the Internet to help you make better choices.”

“You’re all familiar with the recent event in the community involving drinking and driving,” Ms. Mandoshkin said. “Summer is coming and we want you to be in a better position to help yourselves and your friends.”

“I ask you, do any of you feel you have the right to decide who will live or die today?” Ms. Mandoshkin asked the youth. “Because that’s the decision you’re making every time you get behind the wheel as a drunk driver. There are repercussions for the choices we make.”

Ms. Mandoshkin showed the group a video titled ‘Shattered Circles.’ The video shows interviews with the real-life victims of a drunk driver—a First Nations family that saw their newborn baby, toddler, mother and grandmother killed before their eyes and the resulting trauma they continue to live with. A son is motherless and watches his father try to cope with the loss by numbing himself with alcohol and drugs.

The NADAP worker encouraged the youth to “make decisions that their friends may not support. We’re not here to lecture: the point is to educate. Even though it may not be the popular choice, it’s the right one for you.”

“I was in the truck with Bo a couple of hours before the accident,” one young man told Ms. Mandoshkin. “I know I should have asked to get out.”

Cindy Francis, the mother of 21-year-old Thomas Francis, also addressed the group and held the rapt attention of the youth when she told her son’s story.

Most of the group knows Mr. Francis and his family, but were surprised to learn how an accident he was involved in has changed both the young man and his family forever.

In 2006, the then-17-year-old had the world in the palm of his hand. A nice new car, a great girlfriend and good friends and a spot on the AOK Raiders men’s fastball team was everything the teenager could have wanted that September. Then one night, his life would be turned upside down.

Ms. Francis told the group how her son and his friends were driving from one party to another when, during a rainy night, he missed the turn and crashed into a culvert near M’Chigeeng. His friends fled from the scene and left him, not knowing whether he was dead or alive. Police measured a blood alcohol level that showed the young man had been drinking before the accident.

The mother explained how her son had to learn how to speak and walk again, how he is scarred, emotionally and physically and spoke of his struggles with drugs and alcohol, a coping mechanism to deal with the aftermath of the accident.

“I lost half a son that night,” she said, holding back her emotions. “He loved sports, he can’t do them now. He’ll never be the same. We fight now.”

“He lost a solid year of his life,” she said, explaining that between hospital and rehab, the toll on the family was great.

“I see him struggling to this day, his self-esteem is so low,” Ms. Francis continued. “He gets so angry, it’s hard to watch.”

She explained how her son now has to deal with mood swings, forgetfulness and has a hard time focussing. “He’ll cook things then forget to turn the burner off.”

Ms. Francis said she and her family are so grateful that her son is a strong-willed person and has pushed himself to regain some sense of normalcy. He is enrolled at Cambrian College now—a feat the family is proud of—but admits he should have already graduated.

“Tom hates it when people tell him he’s lucky,” she said, noting that people think just because they see him walking around that everything is fine. “Lucky? Lucky would mean he was never in an accident. He broke his neck and wore a halo for four months.”

The mother told the group that on top of everything her son now has to deal with as part of his new life, doctors have said he will also suffer from pain as an older adult because of his injuries.

“Is your life not so valuable that you’d hop into a car with a drunk driver?” Ms. Francis asked. “You can lose it all in one night by making one stupid decision. There’s no excuse for drinking and driving these days. Call a cab, call your parents, stay the night.”

“My heart goes out to the family (of Mr. Larabie),” she said. “They’ll have so much to go through.”

Flo and Peter Nahwegahbo also addressed the youth, sharing the tragic story of their brother Josh who passed away 14 years ago—a result of drinking and driving.

Josh Nawegahbow was a passenger on a snowmobile that went through the ice. Both the driver and Mr. Nawegahbo were intoxicated and this cost him his life.

“It’s a lifetime sentence that friends and families have to go through,” Ms. Nawegahbo said through her tears. “I wish more of you would realize that drinking is the wrong way to go. Josh had his whole life ahead of him.”

Peter Nawegahbo explained that both he and his sister made a lifestyle choice to stop drinking and that he also had made his share of bad decisions in the past and feels fortunate to not be a statistic today.

A video presentation, made in happier times, showed pictures of Mr. Nawegahbo with broad smiles, time and again. “Josh was so full of life,” his brother said.

In a moving act, he continued by reading, only a partial list, of community members who have passed away early in life as a direct cause of drugs or alcohol. The list numbered in the teens and went back to the 1970s.

“We want you to know that there are adults here for you,” he said.

A few of the youth chose to speak with The Expositor during a break in the conference to share their thoughts about both the recent tragedy and day’s events, provided they were quoted anonymously.

“I was pretty shocked when I heard about the accident,” one young man said. “I was with him earlier that night, and then you hear it was alcohol related.”

“The rez is definitely going to be different,” one girl said. “He (Mr. Larabie) was everyone’s friend. If it could happen to him, it could happen to everyone.”

“It makes you think a little bit harder,” another girl added. “You’ve got to improve your choices, I guess.”

“It’s happened so many times, the community it had to do something,” a girl said.

“It’s nice that the chief and council care and that they are doing stuff like this for us,” her friend added. “The guest speakers had a really big affect. They aren’t coming to lecture, just to help change our minds.”

She explained that partying in the community has been toned down since the accident and that in some cases, all of the keys are given up at the beginning of the night and cabs called.

“We all hope and pray for the best,” the young man said. “It’s opened the eyes of the youth to see how easy it is for an accident like this to happen.”

The youth said that they were moved by the guest speaker’s experiences and the effects on the community.

“This was very informative and eye opening to a lot of us here and they did a good job,” the young man said. “I think things will change a lot now.”