We are losing a generation of First Nation youth

Beausoleil 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.

Beausoleil

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 richardwagamese@yahoo.com.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Willow Brewster, a paramedic helping in the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre, holds a swab used for the COVID-19 test moments before conducting a test with it on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
An inside look at the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre

As the active COVID-19 case count grew last week, so too did… Continue reading

Conservation officers search for a black bear in the Riverdale area in Whitehorse on Sept. 17. The Department of Environment intends to purchase 20 semi-automatic AR-10 rifles, despite the inclusion of the weapons in a recently released ban introduced by the federal government, for peace officers, such as conservation officers. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Environment Minister defends purchase of AR-10 rifles for conservation officers

The federal list of banned firearms includes an exception for peace officers

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The K-shaped economic recovery and what Yukoners can do about it

It looks like COVID-19 will play the role of Grinch this holiday… Continue reading

Jodie Gibson has been named the 2020 Prospector of the Year by the Yukon Prospectors Association. (Submitted)
Jodie Gibson named 2020 Prospector of the Year

Annual award handed out by the Yukon Prospector’s Association

A number 55 is lit in honour of Travis Adams, who died earlier this year, at the Winter Wonderland Walk at Meadow Lakes Golf Club in Whitehorse on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
A new take on holiday traditions

Winter Wonderland Walk, virtual Stories with Santa all part of 2020 festive events in Whitehorse

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

Colin McDowell, the director of land management for the Yukon government, pulls lottery tickets at random during a Whistle Bend property lottery in Whitehorse on Sept. 9, 2019. A large amount of lots are becoming available via lottery in Whistle Bend as the neighbourhood enters phase five of development. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Lottery for more than 250 new Whistle Bend lots planned for January 2021

Eight commercial lots are being tendered in additional to residential plots

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21. The Canada Border Services Agency announced Nov. 26 that they have laid charges against six people, including one Government of Yukon employee, connected to immigration fraud that involved forged Yukon government documents. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Charges laid in immigration fraud scheme, warrant out for former Yukon government employee

Permanent residency applications were submitted with fake Yukon government documents

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Karen Wenkebach has been appointed as a judge for the Yukon Supreme Court. (Yukon News file)
New justice appointed

Karen Wenckebach has been appointed as a judge for the Supreme Court… Continue reading

Catherine Constable, the city’s manager of legislative services, speaks at a council and senior management (CASM) meeting about CASM policy in Whitehorse on June 13, 2019. Constable highlighted research showing many municipalities require a lengthy notice period before a delegate can be added to the agenda of a council meeting. Under the current Whitehorse procedures bylaw, residents wanting to register as delegates are asked to do so by 11 a.m. on the Friday ahead of the council meeting. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Changes continue to be contemplated for procedures bylaw

Registration deadline may be altered for delegates

Cody Pederson of the CA Storm walks around LJ’s Sabres player Clay Plume during the ‘A’ division final of the 2019 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament. The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28 in Whitehorse next year, was officially cancelled on Nov. 24 in a press release from organizers. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament cancelled

The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28… Continue reading

Lev Dolgachov/123rf
The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner stressed the need to safeguard personal information while shopping this holiday season in a press release on Nov. 24.
Information and Privacy Commissioner issues reminder about shopping

The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Diane McLeod-McKay stressed the need to… Continue reading

Most Read