Header photo by Hamish Grant. Used with permission.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Native Narrative: My Visit to Deer Lake, Ont.

The summer of 2007, my perceptions about the "developed world" changed.

I was nervous.  I didn’t tell anybody, but I was. I gazed out the window of the small, nine-passenger airplane and beheld a vast expanse of trees, lakes, and bare rock in all directions.  There were no signs of human existence anywhere below me.  That’s when it set in: I was going to Northern Ontario—remote Northern Ontario.  I remember thinking, What have I gotten myself into?  I was on my way to Deer Lake, Ontario, an Oji-Cree First Nations community of about a thousand people, and I was nervous.

I was travelling to Deer Lake as a member of a five-person team sent to run literacy-based day camps for the children whose ages spanned from four to fifteen.  We were sent by Frontier College, an organization devoted to the empowerment of Canadians through literacy.  Our team consisted of three individuals from “Southern Canada” and two from Deer Lake itself.

Over the course of the summer, the five of us worked together to come up with a daily program that was meant to keep the children coming back day after day.  Our goal wasn’t to teach them how to read; rather, we tried to show them the joy of picking up a book and enjoying it.  We wanted to get these young boys and girls excited about books, and give them something fun and constructive to do over their summer holidays. 

It wasn’t easy.  In fact, at times, it was devastatingly difficult.  As a team, we dealt with some issues that I had never been exposed to before.  We were faced with the issues of suicide and self-harm.  We saw poverty, unemployment, and substance abuse up close.  We learned how to creatively address the unique needs of children with special needs and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.  Our hearts were broken by the honesty of the children who would tell us about the challenges of their home lives.

Those moments of sorrow and hardship were, however, far outnumbered by the times of boundless joy, laughter, and strength that we witnessed day in and day out.  I was amazed at the sense of strength, support and solidarity that the community possessed and asserted, especially in times of need.  I was even more impressed by the strong-willed children whose determination and love of life was inspiring.

This arena of juxtaposition between challenge and vitality was where I made, what I perceive to be, my greatest discoveries.  Aboriginal people, particularly those in remote regions, face some serious difficulties and strains.  They have been relegated to the margins and forced to live on the terms of others.  This, of course, has had substantial economic, social, political, psychological and cultural implications.

What’s worse is the fact that most Canadians don’t seem to care.  They’ve heard the stories about residential schools; about xenophobic government policies and treaties; and about the many social problems that affect First Nations communities.  They’ve heard all these things, and they want to hear no more, so what do they do?  I would like to say that they try to help solve the problem from the structural level in order to ensure justice, but we know that this is not the case.  No, they flip to the sports section.

In my time up north, I came to realize the shocking degree to which Aboriginal people in Canada are being marginalized, and how little our governments and society are doing to help.  In Deer Lake, I witnessed the community fight to overcome challenges with solidarity and empathy.  When difficulties arose for individuals or families, others would step up and help in any way they could.  There was this feeling while I was there that they were all in it together, and each was going to help the other every step of the way.  This inspired me.  To think that despite some of Canada’s most extreme injustice and hardship, the First Nations people in these communities are finding the strength and agency to help one another and refuse to be overcome is tremendous.

But it’s not enough.  Some of the people have fallen through the cracks.  This concentrated effort, though incredible, can not be sustainable against social and legal frameworks that are set against them.  Land disputes, resource-hungry corporations, an apathetic Canadian public, and a government that does not meet the needs of the Aboriginal population are all forces that communities like Deer Lake are up against. 

They cannot and should not have to do it on their own.

We are all culpable in this injustice, and so I believe that we have a collective moral responsibility to seek to help and address the problems and issues that are affecting our fellow Canadians.  I’ll be the first one to admit that I, too have been ignorant.  I have tried to shut out the stories in order to shut off empathy.  That changed for me when I went to Deer Lake.  I can no longer be passive and just sit back as people suffer through so-called “Third World” conditions within the very borders of my home province.

To quote Thomas King, “Don’t say in years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story.  You’ve heard it now.”

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