Junior Canadian Rangers pay tribute to Fort Albany teen

By Sgt. Peter Moon
Monday, October 24, 2016

FORT ALBANY CANADA – Junior Canadian Rangers and members of the Canadian Armed Forces paid tribute at the funeral on Saturday for a Junior Ranger who committed suicide in Fort Albany, a small Cree community on the coast of James Bay.

Garrett Tomagatick, 13, died on Oct. 15, the result, according to his family and others, of bullying and constant comments about problems with his weight. His death occurred after his sister, Thomasania, 27, took her own life on March 6 of last year. Garrett’s death was the fourth suicide in Fort Albany this year.

Suicide in the leading cause of death for Indigenous youth aged 10 to 14 in remote First Nations across Northern Ontario.

One of the few bright moments in Tomagatick’s life, according to his family, came from his membership in the Junior Canadian Rangers, a Canadian Armed Forces program for boys and girls aged 12 to 18 in remote Northern communities.

“His family said the Junior Canadian Ranger program was important to Tomagatick after his sister passed away last year,” said Capt. John McNeil, the Canadian Army officer who commands the 750 Junior Rangers in 20 remote First Nations across the Far North of Ontario.

“They said the program itself and the kids who are involved in the program were instrumental in his healing. They said he enjoyed being a Junior Ranger very much. They said he was very happy at this year’s Camp Loon and it was because of the camp that he was the most excited he’d been in a while.”

Camp Loon is an annual summer advanced training camp for Junior Canadian Rangers from across the North. The photo the family released to the media after Tomagatick’s death showed him in his Junior Ranger uniform taking part in the traditional arts program at the camp.

The military paid tribute to his memory at his funeral. Junior Rangers flanked his coffin, which was covered with a Canadian flag, in the gymnasium of the school in Fort Albany. There were also members of the Armed Forces, including Cpl. Jennifer Spence, an aunt, who flew to Fort Albany for the funeral.

Master Cpl. Hannah Nakogee, the Canadian Ranger in charge of the community’s Junior Ranger patrol, organized a community candle light vigil that was held after the funeral and the traditional feast for the dead.

There was also an impromptu meeting involving Canadian Rangers, Junior Rangers, and members of the Fort Albany educational authority and band councillors, Capt. McNeil said.

“It was held because we wanted to facilitate dialogue,” he said. “Bullying seems to be a big problem in the community. The kids are talking about it but many of the adults do not seem to be talking with the kids. When issues are reported to the school, they do what they can, but they say they get a poor response from the parents when they are told about them.”

Tomagatick’s death is another instance of a long-running problem of youth suicide in the James Bay communities, which culminated last spring in a crisis in Attawapiskat First Nation that received national and international attention.

The issue of suicide of Indigenous youth was raised again last week after there was another rash of suicides in First Nation communities in Northern Sakatchewan.

In both the Attawapiskat and Saskatchewan cases, the federal government sent mental health teams to help the communities deal with the immediate aftermath. The Daily Press contacted Health Canada to see if similar efforts were being made in Fort Albany in this case, but were told no decision on how to respond to Tomagatick’s death has been made.