Thirty-five years ago, when Larry Jorgenson visited Bella Bella, British Columbia, he discovered a community in crisis experiencing an average of one suicide a month. At the time, he was working in Alberta reorganizing provincial mental health programs. He had done similar work in Ontario. At the urging of the school principal, Larry moved to the isolated community accessible only by boat or plane to work with the Heiltsuk youth.
Larry, with the support and encouragement of Chiefs and elders, established the Qqs (pronounced Kucks, the Heiltsuk word for eyes) Projects Society with the objective of opening the eyes of the young people to their responsibilities as stewards of the Heiltsuk environment and culture. One program, the Koeye culture camp, teaches the Heiltsuk culture and language through singing and dancing and the traditional ways of resource management. Campers sing the songs about the grizzly bear but can also produce the data to measure the conditions of its habitat.
Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett credits the Qqs programs with strengthening a generation of youth by helping them to retain their cultural identity. Larry’s reward for thirty-five years of community work is seeing the passion for the outdoors in the eyes of the children. “To be with a child watching a Sandhill crane dance while we hide behind a rock – seeing the look in their eyes- it’s beyond description.”
In a recent article in the Globe and Mail, Larry says, “It is not an accident that today’s cultural leaders are people who grew up in Qqs. Everything we do is culturally based. Our pillars are youth, culture and the environment. What we have tried to do is integrate western and traditional science. It has been a slow turnaround but by instilling kids with the strength and resilience of their culture, the Heiltsuk community has experienced a cultural and economic revival.” Larry cannot recall the last youth suicide in their town of 1400. He credits the efforts of many individuals with this result.