A few years after 18-year-old Leah Oke moved to Port Renfrew she was shocked when a teen-aged youth hung himself from the rafters of the local First Nations' bighouse.
Trevor Jones, 17, had been a friend of hers and his death in September of 2003 prompted the destruction of the band’s cultural centre. Now all that remains is a pile of logs and boards serving as a painful reminder to the Pacheenaht band of another youth who could not be reached.
"He’s not the only one," said Oke "there are still lots of kids thinking about [suicide] and kids who have tried it but haven’t been successful, yet."
Both the native and non-native community have recognized the ongoing problem. It started in 1992 with three suicides as part of a pact and it has continued with Jones death being the most recent. In such a small town - population 175 - the deaths have left the community reeling.
Port Renfrew, a two hour drive from Victoria, consists of two communities; the Pacheenaht reserve and the area that was once a bustling logging town. The community is at the very end of the highway on the west coast of Vancouver Island and marks the beginning of the West Coast trail. When the logging industry left a large segment of the community followed.
"Port Renfrew is a town looking for a concept," said Michael Dussault a B.C. Ambulance Paramedic. "There seems to be the attitude among youth of a lack of future."
HELP FROM THE SURF
Oke wants to change the hopeless attitude and she believes that surfing can do it. Oke began surfing because she grew up with her family in an area that is now the Sombrio beach day-use area of Juan de Fuca Provincial Park. The creation of the park forced the Oke family to move to Port Renfrew.
Since the move Oke has seen the death of her friends and family members. It was the late night car accident off the end of the government dock that threw her brother, Vancouver Island surfing legend, Jesse Oke into the freezing waters of Port San Juan.
Despite these tragedies Oke continues to surf. A Canadian surf champ by the time she was 15 and spending a summer in Tofino teaching at Surf Sister Surf School gave Oke an idea.
"Surfing is a way to stay alive and be happy," said Oke, who together with her mother Barbara is determined to start a project to get the kids of port Renfrew surfing.
The shoreline off the Pacheenaht band’s reserve is the perfect place to surf when the conditions are right. "They have a break in their front yard!" said Oke.
Oke began by putting the call out to the surfers of Vancouver Island to donate used wetsuit and surfboards of all sizes. The response was fast; she received seven e-mails on the first day. Within a month there were eight wetsuits and several surfboards being stored at Coastline, a surf shop in Victoria.
THE COMMUNITIES PULL TOGETHER
Oke and her mom are not the only ones working to change the fate of Port Renfrew’s youth. Bruce Comaniuk an artist turned teaching assistant does what he can to keep the youth of Port Renfrew active. The result of his first after-school program is the life sized paper maché orca whale that perches above the tourist information sign.
School in Port Renfrew only goes to grade five and everyday school day after that the youth board a bus for the one hour and 45 minute ride to Sooke.
Comaniuk works with the other teachers at Port Renfrew Elementary to run an after-school program. This program includes field trips every other Friday to Sooke or Victoria.
When the younger children are gone on field trips the Elementary school opens for the older youth. They use the kitchen for home economics and meet with a high school teacher, who drives out from Sooke, to get help with homework.
There is some money supplied federally for the programs, the rest is gained through fundraising and band support.
The Pacheenaht Band council is trying to support band members from preschool to adulthood.
Their elected chief Jeff Jones, 34, has unique insight on these youth; his brother was the first to commit suicide in 1992.
It’s a tough battle as the physical and emotional health of the community suffers due to a lack education and high unemployment rate. However, since being elected Jones has seen to having a health team come to the reserve twice a month and a psychologist comes weekly. To further good education the band has also created a preschool as part of Port Renfrew Elementary.
There is a lot of hope for these at risk youth, with help from their teachers, friends and community they may not have to witness another suicide. As for Oke, she plans to finish school so she can be one of the next to graduate high school from Port Renfrew.
Soon besides rain and fog there will be new sounds and sights in Port Renfrew; the wet-suited bodies of the local youth paddling to catch the next wave.
|If you have some unused surf gear you'd like to contribute to this cause, you can drop it off at;
Coastline - Surf * Snow * Skate
1417 Broad St Victoria BC V8W 2B2
||Angela Hill is a graduate from UVIC, she likes photography, snowboarding and makes an attempt at surfing; to support these habits she works as a lab rat in Sidney.