First Nation, ON
November is mild here on beautiful Georgian Bay. The maple bush that comprises most of this Ojibway reserve has been reduced to skeletal trees and the forest floor is deep in scarlet leaves.
The wind that moves across the water creates a nonstop whistle that’s eerie when you first hear it. Like moving water. Like something massive moving just beyond your view. When it stops and the land falls into silence, you’re hard-pressed to decide which has eerier properties.
This reserve stands on the place of oldest contact between the early Jesuits and native people. The site is marked by a cairn and the evidence of stones that formed the foundation of that first mission. They moved across the bay, those men in black, and built the fort outside of Midland that came to be called Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons. You can feel history here just as you can feel the bracing touch of that wind off the water. There are voices in the trees. They speak in Ojibway just as they speak in French.
This reserve sits on a 15-square-kilometre island called Christian Island, that Gordon Lightfoot once wrote a song about. You get here by ferry and in the winter when the ice is set and the winds are down, you can take a hovercraft owned by the band. Now though, the ferry crosses hourly and there’s a steady stream of traffic. Beausoleil is remote even though Midland is a mere half-hour drive away. Typical of most remote reservations, time has sown peculiar properties and days stretch out long and largely devoid of markers.
I’m here to teach. There’s a small group of adult education students who for one reason or another didn’t make it in the regular school system and I’m here to show them the value of story and storytelling in their lives. I’m not a teacher by trade. I work with words but being here and seeing the nature of their lives here seems to bring out the latent educator in me. It’s hard work. It pushes me to use every ounce of people skill I’ve learned and it’s making me bigger somehow.
See, I thought I knew most of what there was to know about native life in Canada. As a journalist of 30 years who focused on native issues, I deemed myself well read and articulate in that area. But when you come out and see things from the ground, well, it’s an education in itself. Sure, there are the ubiquitous housing issues, unemployment, negligible pathways to the ear of government and a lack of national leadership, but what’s most stunning is the amount of empty time.
There is nothing to do. For the youth who, true to the native Canadian demographic, make up the bulk of the population, it’s crippling. When I stand or sit at the front of the classroom and try mightily to make constructive contact, it’s the biggest mission I’ve ever set up for myself.
There’s a shocking inability on their part to communicate, to speak for themselves, to vocalize anything beyond what’s asked for, and it comes directly from a lack of appropriate distraction or input. Remote is one thing but being removed is another.
These are a people removed from anything resembling a pace or a rhythm to their days and it’s the same on most out-of-the-way reserves. The youth in my group, a dozen ranging in age from 19 to 22, are far more prone to engage vocally with Wii or video games than they are to answer a question like, “If you had your choice of learning to do anything, what would it be?” To watch them struggle to find a voice, to believe that they were free to answer with anything, brought a lump to my throat.
We live in a time when communication and the technology to make that happen efficiently are at their highest point ever in our collective history. We live in a time when messaging is automatic. Yet this circle of youth finds it hard to respond to even wide open questions like that. For me, as a storyteller, a lover of words and communication, it’s angering.
My national chief deems himself an educator. His platform for getting elected back in June spoke to his aim to make education and youth a priority. Yet, five months later, we have heard nothing about initiatives, direction or changes.
Here, where native youth struggle to find direction, to choose a discipline or even know that they can, I wonder if Shawn Atleo has any real idea of the size of the issue.
Serious dollars need to be directed to native education and skill training. Now. There’s no time to lose – but there’s certainly a generation to lose if native leadership does nothing. You see that when you’re standing on the ground with them.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, is out from Doubleday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.