A group of Indigenous youth show southern Canadians what life in a remote northern community is really like.
By Lenny Carpenter
When four youth in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation decided to send an open invitation for average Canadians to come spend five days in their remote community in northwestern Ontario to build bridges across culture and get a clearer sense of what life on a remote reserve is like, many in the community did not take them seriously.
“There were people who said it’s impossible,” said Leona Matthews, one of the youth organizers. “They say, ‘they’re just youth, they don’t do anything.’ But we worked really hard and got it done.”
The original goal was to have 25 Canadians come into the reserve – located nearly 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. Clearly, the letter worked: 43 Canadians answered the call. The group flew into the community on June 17 to spend five days and four nights in KI, also known as Big Trout Lake.
“I didn’t think this was going to blow up like this,” said Justin Beardy during the event.
“It snowballed— totally exceeding my expectations.”
The visitors stayed with local families, and experienced first-hand life in an isolated First Nations community in northern Ontario.
They toured homes to get a sense of the housing conditions, and learned about substance abuse and unemployment issues. During an open forum with the chief and council, they learned about the frustrations of trying to work with what one visitor called a “paternalistic” federal government.
But they also experienced the Ojicree people’s traditional activities such as fishing, canoeing and medicine picking. They ate traditional meals of geese, moose, fish and caribou prepared by local Elders. And they learned how tight-knit and resilient a community of 1,300 can be.
Peter Love, a part-time lawyer and member of the Toronto Rotary Club, said most Canadians know little about Aboriginal history and their perspective.
“We’re terribly ignorant,” he said. “But this [KI trip] is the process of learning.”
Connections were made, friendships formed, and cultural gaps bridged. Both visitors and hosts were sad at the conclusion of the week.
The first such youth-coordinated exchange initiative of its kind in KI, the program’s inspiration can be traced back six years ago, to the arrival in KI of a young Ottawa filmmaker, Andree Cazabon.
Herself a child of foster homes, and since an award-winning filmmaker/activist, Cazabon had heard about eight children in the community who had become orphans after their mother and stepfather committed suicide a month-and-a-half apart.
When she arrived to produce a documentary on the socio-economic issues within the community, she met with some reticence- despite having the blessing of the chief and council.
“The first thought was anger. My nephews and nieces had been through a lot – and now somebody was filming them and asking them questions,” resident Tina Sainnawap said after the film’s premiere. “I felt like she was going to hurt my nieces and nephews.”
But when Cazabon explained her reasons for filming, and made a commitment that she would continue to work with the Indigenous community for 10 years, many relented.
“As an individual, I was responsible to make a commitment to the community,” said Cazabon, who is a Francophone-Ontarian. “I would not make another film until we made a difference.”
The documentary was titled 3rd World Canada. After its premiere in 2010, Cazabon took the film on several tours in various cities in Ontario.
Youth from the community – including some of the film’s subjects – came along to speak at the screenings in Ontario. That proved to be a challenge. “You’d be lucky to get a sentence out of them,” Cazabon said.
But as the tours progressed, the youth grew more comfortable.
“It took two years,” Cazabon said. “Youth engagement is not something done overnight and you need people to lead with their voices.”
Through the tours, 3rd World Canada evolved from a film into the KI exchange project.
This past January – at the height of Idle No More – Cazabon visited KI. She wanted to meet with youth, and brainstorm ideas and possibilities on what to do next to bridge those cultural gaps.
Inviting Canadians to spend a week in the community was one of them.
But instead of taking the lead on the idea, as she had done with the tours, Cazabon turned ownership of the project over to the group. She insisted the youth needed to spearhead the initiative, in order for it to be a success.
Beardy and Karyn Paishk were involved from the start. Although they had never engaged with 3rd World Canada, they had previously helped organize local events related to Idle No More. Matthews and Faith McKay joined up later on. And while other local youth took part in meetings and volunteering, those four would be the core group behind the KI event.
Cazabon served not only as a mentor but a partner in the initiative through her production company, Cazabon Productions.
“I told them I would donate four months of my time,” she said. “We drafted up an agreement, they threw me a budget and we would all be responsible.”
Being a grassroots initiative, the project lacked major funders. So the youth fundraised and sought sponsors in the
north while Cazabon covered the south. Wasaya Airways, an Aboriginally-owned airline, came on board through youth efforts, while the Toronto Rotary Club, which hosted screenings during the tours, agreed to sponsor the event.
“Our fundraising campaign promised deliverables that have to do with funders’ objectives,” Cazabon said.
The whole initiative was a “scary project,” for the youth, Cazabon said. “They learned the best way to erase the fear is lean on each other.”
There were times the youth thought the event might never happen.
“We almost gave up but we always kept pushing each other,” Matthews said. “We were a great team.”
Within a few weeks, Paishk and McKay went on another short 3rd World Canada tour in Toronto, Peterborough and Ottawa, where they were hosted by visitors from the KI event.
Immediately following the event, another group of KI youth travelled to Lisbon, Portugal to attend a Rotary International Convention, which was attended by 25,000 people from around the world.
“I’m so proud to be from here, KI. This is our home,” Paishk said on the last night of the event. She noted the laughter around the community grounds. “You see this? This is the spirit of KI, and I don’t think it’ll ever die.”