Spirit Quest - Third World in Canada

Spirit Quest

'When there's a fire, never mind the door go through the window'

By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective
“You did a very stupid thing (coming here),” were the words of greeting that my daughter spoke as her mother stepped off the Cesna that brought her from Thunder Bay to this dirt landing strip in northern Ontario. My daughter was running a youth project on a fly-in reserve, not Attawapiskat, but sharing many of its characteristics and problems.

My wife Marlene was making a one-week visit. Her only piece of baggage  was crammed to bursting  with the items that my daughter had requested. Upon returning home, my wife stated that she was surprised that her first visit to the Third World would be within our own borders. Years later, after considerable travel visiting Kenya and Ethiopia, she came to the conclusion that northern Ontario had much in common with those countries, except of course the weather. There was poverty, disease and overcrowding. These are problems without borders.

  Attawapiskat First Nation office, Attawapiskat, Ontario. (Image: Wikipedia.)

For a week my spouse, shared a “basic house” with a group of young people from the south who were involved in a number of projects designated by the local band council.

One important piece of advice my daughter stressed to her charges and to her mother was that “if you smell smoke you go through the window, never mind trying to reach a door.” Fire was an ever present threat. Many of the native people had stories of losing shelter and possessions in a blaze that was usually not contained until ground level. The people were terrorized by the possibility of forest fires and the prospect of being evacuated from their community.

Although more than 25 years have passed since her visit north little seems to have changed. The same tinder boxes, mould infested shacks, we see in the photos of Attawapiskat are still very much in evidence.

These remote communities are also faced with problems due to climate change such as more rapid thawing of permafrost, flooding, and a severely shortened season for winter roads that use a network of frozen lakes to bring much needed building materials from the south. 

Attawapiskat has been very much in the news, particularly on the laying of blame  for these third world conditions. There have been enough mistakes to be very broadly shared at every level. This isn’t as though all this was unknown. We really should not be surprised.

From colonial times through residential schools, to the present housing and health crisis, the problems have persisted. Children and their parents were brought south to escape the flooding. Food is enormously expensive. People are forced to sleep in shifts. There is little employment . Sanitation is an unspeakable subject. Marlene muses about the outdoor toilets that were “air conditioned” allowing children to peep through cracks and knot holes and sheepishly whisper, “Whatcha doin'’ eh?”

The Prime Minister has vowed to get to the bottom of the problem, but will this improve the situation not only at Attawapiskat but throughout northern Canada?

The north is rich in resources. “One of the biggest diamond mines in Canada and possibly the wealthiest in the world is located just upstream from Attawapiskat. It is on traditional Cree territory, but the royalties flow to the province, not the First Nation," Gloria Galloway quotes Professor Bob Lovelace, a professor at Queen’s and himself an Algonguin chief. (Globe and Mail  Dec. 1)  “Some Attawapiskat residents work at the mine, but they are not trained to do specialized types of jobs that pay good wages.”

Hopelessness is written large over many people’s faces. Marlene recounts seeing the happy playfulness of the small children as they splashed in the lake, a demeanor that has by now undoubtedly changed to depression and thoughts of suicide as they reach adulthood.

Her visit was in August when the days were warm but already the nights gave hints of the weather to come.  It’s cold there now!

When she boarded the plane south her baggage exuded the wonderful smell of blueberries. The goods she left behind were replaced with plastic containers of “blue gold.” She also brought with her great memories of the resourceful people of the true north. She flew  over lakes, rapids and rivers, rocks and boreal forest. She noted the clear cut areas often leaving just a fringe of trees around some lake which concerned her. 

Might the present revelations, the arrival of the Red Cross with better tents and warmer sleeping bags, as well as loads of bureaucrats armed with squared paper and sharp pencils, to say nothing of their BlackBerries that don’t always work up there. They will study the situation and write reports. The press has published articles and taken pictures galore, hopefully they make for a “Wake-Up Call” that will be heard  from the Arctic Circle to the Great Lake Waters. We can no longer claim that we didn’t know, more likely, we didn’t care. 

I believe that there is a Spirit of justice and caring alive among us. Like the northern rivers it flows with great force but it is often dammed, not only by beavers and ice, but by red tape and cover-up, neglect, for sure!

Let that Spirit flow, and soon, like NOW.

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