After a skateboarder's death, Esgenoôpetitj First Nation working to build a dream park

·4 min read
Frank Johnson skateboards on one of the homemade ramps at 'the slab,' an old foundation in Esgenoôpetitj First Nation currently used by skateboarders. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC - image credit)
Frank Johnson skateboards on one of the homemade ramps at 'the slab,' an old foundation in Esgenoôpetitj First Nation currently used by skateboarders. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC - image credit)

At a cracked, old concrete foundation called "the slab," skateboarders are flying up metal ramps, sliding across rails and trying new tricks.

It's a busy spot in Esgenoôpetitj First Nation overlooking the dark blue waters of  Miramichi Bay. After a fire burned the reserve's band hall to the ground, skaters repurposed the remaining foundation into a place for their sport.

Frank Johnson is one of a dozen skaters flying back and forth across the park. He started skateboarding here when he was 11.

"If you wanted to talk to any people, we'd have to come to the skate park. And because that was the spot to be, everybody would come around and every day, all day," he said.

Skateboarding is popular with youth in the Mi'kmaw community, about 35 kilometres northeast of Miramichi. But the reserve lacks a proper skate park with concrete features, like the one in nearby Neguac.

WATCH / 'It's our dream': committee fundraising to build proper skate park

The slab has filled that gap for now. There's boxes made from cinder blocks, wooden ramps, metal rails and bright shades of spray paint add pops of colour to the gravel-covered edges.

Now, following the death of a well-known skateboarder, the community hopes to break ground on a large concrete skate park this summer.

Remembering Tyrelle

On a clear June evening, Maurice Savoie was one of the skaters at the slab. He's from Neguac, but spent much of his childhood in the First Nation, often with a skateboard under his feet.

That's how he met Frank Johnson and his neighbour, Tyrelle Augustine.

The three young men quickly became good friends and spent days at the slab trying out new tricks and bonding over their shared passion for skateboarding.

Submitted by Burton Martin
Submitted by Burton Martin

The slab was Tyrelle's favourite spot.

Johnson remembers his friend dragging him down there all the time.

"He lived across the road from me. He'd come to my house really early in the morning. 'Let's go skate, bro, let's go skate. I wouldn't be ready. But he'd be all ready to go,'" he said.

Tyrelle travelled to competitions in Bathurst, Moncton, Fredericton and Montreal.

When his mother died, he went to live with Burton Martin, his grandfather.

Alexandre Silberman/CBC
Alexandre Silberman/CBC

Martin said he didn't see any warning signs. But on Sept. 21, 2019, he went to check on his grandson in his room and found Tyrelle had killed himself. He was 22.

"It's very hard," he said. "I still think about my son. I still think about him every day, not a day pass that I don't.

"Ever since he passed … I made a promise to his friends. Not only his friends, to even even the children around the reserve."

The promise: to build a skate park.

'It would mean so much'

After Tyrelle's death, friends and family started fundraising and have gathered about $50,000 to build a park in his memory.

Savoie said skateboarding has kept him focused. He wonders what might've happened if Tyrelle had a nice skate park in the community.

"If I look at it, skateboarding kind of saved my life," he said.

"A lot of my friends were always having issues with going through the wrong path, and I was always at the skate park trying to progress and learn new tricks. So I never had the time to go experience what all my other friends were doing, if it was bad stuff, then I wasn't there."

Alexandre Silberman/CBC
Alexandre Silberman/CBC

The committee is close to making a proper skate park a reality in the First Nation. They're considering a few sites and continuing to raise money with the goal of breaking ground later this summer.

Frank Johnson said that for him, a skate park is a safe place. He hopes the new park can host competitions.

"You can let your anger out. This is like a spot where people can fit in," he said.

"It would mean so much to me and so much to others in this community because we've been wanting a skate park. We'll have bigger people coming to support it, and that's our dream."

If you are in crisis or know someone who is, here is where to get help:

CHIMO hotline: 1-800-667-5005  / http://www.chimohelpline.ca

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868,  Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566

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