Three years ago, Karen Ward of FTC Canada was visiting the community of Mishkeegogamang when she noticed children roaming about after midnight. Puzzled by the sight of these little night owls, she asked around -- and discovered that they were waiting for their turn to use a bed. The housing shortage is so severe that the children of Mish must sleep in shifts.

Karen thought about what she might do to help, and asked Chief Connie Gray-McKay, with whom she has developed a warm friendship, whether bunk beds might be one solution. (The long-term solution, of course, is adequate housing. But in the mean time, entire childhoods are going by, and "children who can't sleep, can't study well," as Karen points out.)

Chief Connie thought it was a great idea, so Karen and her colleagues at FTC Canada researched the possibilities, and ultimately raised enough funds to buy 100 pine bunk beds from IKEA. They took fifty up to Mish this December and assembled them. (We don’t have to tell you how baffling and time-consuming it can be to assemble IKEA furniture, so kudos to Karen and her four volunteers!)

Another fifty are slated to arrive in Sandy Lake when FTC Canada ships donations this March.

 

On January 25th, our partner Ryerson University hosted a discussion between former Prime Minister Paul Martin, who now helms the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative, and former AFN Grand Chief Phil Fontaine, about the future of identity and self-governance amongst First Nations peoples. Both men wondered aloud about why there is such an empathy gap in Canada when it comes to tolerating without outrage the "grinding poverty," in Fontaine's words, of our aboriginal communities. One solution, he felt, was to make Native Studies a mandatory class in Canadian high schools.

 

At the very least, one would suggest, a connection should be made between students, so that young people in the south see and come to care for the youth of the north. It is difficult to remain complacent in the realm of lived relationships. We are delighted that this idea is being picked up by Waterloo Collegiate Institute in Waterloo, who has just co-created a Facebook page with Thomas Fiddler Memorial High School in Sandy Lake First Nation. We hope that the exchange of stories, of hopes and fears and ideas, will foster precisely the kind of empathy that Fontaine and Martin called out for.

 

If one needed reminding that housing conditions are lethally dangerous in our First Nations communities, the death of two little boys trapped by fire should bitterly suffice. The community of Summer Beaver, who welcomed our staff so warmly last July, is in mourning this week. A home with no second door to escape through was engulfed by flame in mid-January. There is scant fire-fighting equipment in the community and little the citizens could do but act with singular bravery. One little girl was rescued by resident Marie Yellowhead, who ran through the blaze to get her out. The boys, however, were lost. Our hearts go out to their families.

We have been organizing an effort to send volunteers to Summer Beaver next summer, with skills and tools to assist with the building of safer homes. Our biggest challenge is securing the funding for volunteers' travel, as it costs less to fly to New Zealand than to Summer Beaver. If you can help, or have suggestions, please let us know!

This year's recipients of the James Bartleman Aboriginal Youth Creative Writing Awards include two young people from our communities. Among the six winners were eighteen-year-old Erik Fiddler of Sandy Lake and eleven-year-old Vanessa Trimble of Bearskin Lake. Overall, more than 250 young writers submitted poetry and prose for the judges to consider, so we are delighted for Erik and Vanessa!

“Never forget your tradition, your culture, and who you are.”
Oji-Cree Elder conveying a message to youth

This month, our acting ED Judy Finlay and co-chair Landon Pearson officially launched their book, Tibacimowin: Gathering of Stories.

Here are a few words about the book's genesis:

In the autumn of 2008, Judy and Landon flew to seven of our First Nations communities to ‘gather’ the stories of the Oji-Cree Elders and relay them to First Nations youth. This was an inspired request of the Chiefs involved -- in K.I., Sandy Lake, Fort Severn, Mishkeegogamang, Eabametoong, Nibinamik and Weagamow.

“I try to talk to my grandson in Oji-Cree, he says ‘Mom, what’s Grandpa talking about, what’s he saying?’”

Working through an interpreter, Landon and Judy questioned the Elders about their memories of childhood – many of them had been born in the bush; some had been snatched up by government officials and sent to residential schools, while others were hidden or rescued by their families.

Their memories of these experiences in the 1930s and ‘40s are equal parts joyous and sorrowing, humorous and wise.

“Just before Christmas we used to draw Christ, and then one time I coloured Christ into a red man and that shocked them… that’s probably why the majority of people think ‘if you wanna go to heaven, you gotta be a white person.’”

Landon and Judy asked the Elders what messages they wanted to convey to their grandchildren. For the Elders witness their young people struggle with substance abuse, suicide, early parenthood and other vast challenges, and yearn to advise them.

The pair brought these translated messages and memories to the youth in Thunder Bay, and their responses and musings form the second part of the book. If you would like a copy for your school or community, please let us know.