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7 Things I Learned From 6 Weeks In The North

Foreward

I debated whether or not to write anything to share publicly. Out of respect for my terms of employment, for the respect and privacy of those in the communities I visited, out of fear of saying the wrong thing, and to not just be another white person taking up space where Indigenous voices should be front and centre. These concerns are one of the reasons why I have stayed quiet until now. But given how so many Canadians still live in relative, if not complete ignorance of the experiences of Indigenous peoples both in the past and present, I think I have a certain responsibility not to stay silent.

On that note, before reading, I ask two things of you as you move on:

  1. Be critical. Of both my perspective and experiences, as well as your own. This is written through the lens of a 23 year old, white, urban, middle-class, university educated female from southern Ontario who only spent 6 weeks in the north, and only 3 weeks in each community. Through what lenses are you reading this post?
  2. Don’t listen to me, go listen to Indigenous voices. I mean, yes, please read and understand and appreciate this post. But then go on to proper sources for learning. Indigenous sources. There are many incredible voices out there (I highly recommend CBC Indigenous as well as following @IndigenousXca on twitter as your starting points). But as I’ve said before, I’m a white girl from the south. While I have things to share, at the end of the day I’m not the one we should really be listening to.

Having gotten those thoughts out in the open, now this post can actually begin.

Summer ’17 for me took me all the way up to Northwestern Ontario for 6 weeks to work in two remote, fly-in reservations (approximately 400 km and 600 km north of Thunder Bay) running summer camps focused on literacy for children in the communities. One month after my return I still struggle to truly share with others what the experience was like, but let’s go with ‘wonderful yet tough’ for now. While I don’t wish to in anyway speak on behalf of Indigenous people, here are some general thoughts and ideas I took home with me from my time in the north that I hope you can appreciate and learn from too.

plane selfie
Arrival in community #2, happy to be on the ground for good after some very turbulent skies. Yes that’s a gravel runway, and no that’s not the smallest plane I flew on.

1. Racism and colonialism are alive and well

Not that I didn’t comprehend these topics before, not that I had never seen them. But I saw them in a whole new light this summer, one that I don’t always see first hand. We need to accept that even in Canada, these are still everyday realities for so many people and the negative effects are widespread, deeply embedded in our society, and have long-lasting intergenerational effects. We have normalized so many things that would never be accepted beyond a reserve, from unsafe drinking water to the stereotypes and negative words they are so often confronted with. Why? Because. They. Are. Native. It hurt so much to see this in a light that was new for me but an everyday reality for so many. But we must acknowledge it, accept it without defence or deferring responsibility, and make meaningful change at both individual and systemic levels.

2. What ‘resilience’ truly means

I’ve struggled to come up with a way to expand on this point without rambling on for hours. But it is there, it has been there for generations and it is only getting stronger.

3. The beauty of the land

I almost wrote ‘the beauty of our land’ but stopped myself. Because the land I was on this summer was not my land, I was merely a visitor. But my oh my, the north is so beautiful. Rugged, but with beauty I have never seen before. And it is so critical that we take every effort to protect this beautiful planet that we all share. And particularly critical that we properly consult with Indigenous communities and put their immediate and long-term health and well being at the centre of any matters regarding resource development, pipelines or anything else that affects the land they live on.

IMG_7373
When you fly on single-engine planes, you always get a window seat.

4. We must immediately provide funding for clean drinking water and equal funding for education

yellow drinking water
I still hesitate sometimes before using tap water, because in both communities I worked in we had to boil water to make it safe to drink. Even after boiling it, it was still discoloured.

Full stop. Just do it. That we have let these inequalities go on for so long is absolutely appalling, and these are two things that would have enormous and widespread positive impacts for all members of these communities. The only reason this has not happened is a lack of political will, at least amongst those it doesn’t directly impact.

5. Thunder Bay. Or as one kid called it ‘Murder Bay’.

From the plight of students who must leave their communities and families to go to Thunder Bay for secondary and post-secondary education, to open and violent racist words and actions so many face, Thunder Bay is not just an unwelcoming place for many Indigenous people, but a dangerous one. This was pretty shocking to learn, and if we cannot provide adequate education, healthcare and other opportunities to those living in remote communities then we must ensure they have a safe place to go to receive these things. Thunder Bay is where many end up, but they are not often served well there.

6. Food security and costs must be addressed in a culturally appropriate way

$5.69 for a 2L carton of milk. Roughly $3/lb for bananas. $11 for a small brick (270g) of cheese. $17 for 1 kg of frozen chicken. Shall I go on? These are Nutrition North subsidized prices. But more subsidies aren’t the answer. We have to find a better way to support remote communities in feeding their people in healthy, sustainable, affordable, culturally appropriate ways. Because what’s happening now, at least in the communities I was in, doesn’t check any of those boxes, and the status quo just can’t continue.

7. Every Canadian must take responsibility for reconciliation

No, we were not the ones who sent children to residential schools or who established our own settlements on unceded land. No, maybe you don’t say racist things or do your best to treat everybody in equal and kind ways. But we must accept and acknowledge how we have benefitted from colonialism and discrimination against Indigenous peoples (such as land theft and not respecting treaties) and we must move forward towards a better future. There are some great resources becoming available about how individual Canadians can do this (here’s one to get you started), because reconciliation isn’t just about governance and treaties, but unlearning negative stereotypes and beliefs, understanding, and simply respect from one human being to another. Yes the government has work to do, but so do I and so do you.

sunrise
Sunrise from the dock

 

Bonus: I am allergic to bee stings

Yeah, that was a painful and itchy lesson. I’d suspected it based on a reaction as a kid but never got tested, which needs to officially happen now. Thankfully just ‘large local reaction’ allergic not anaphylactic, but unpleasant nonetheless. It also got infected. Because my life is ridiculous. However, I was home by this point and very grateful to be able to see a doctor at a walk-in clinic for antibiotics instead of only having the nursing station available.

Thank you for taking the time to read this long post. I seriously encourage you all to go and better educate yourself on issues facing Indigenous people in Canada, to connect with Indigenous people and organizations in your community, to pressure politicians at all levels to take reconciliation seriously, and to make reconciliation a personal mission for yourself. This summer was a starting point for me, and I hope this post can be one for you.

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