Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Attawapiskat...Too Familiar, Too Close To Home

Unless you've been living under a rock recently you've no doubt become aware of the plight of the northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat. Aside from the fact that Ontario is my home province, this hits home with me in many ways. Not only because I can't imagine my 8-month-old son living in this type of situation but also because I witnessed living conditions similar to those of Attawapiskat in some of the places I worked over the past decade. I count myself lucky though because in the end, I have the choice to leave for somewhere else. I get a choice. There are kids there that do not. I had a choice to leave a community after being under a "boil water" advisory for close to a year. The kids there do not. I had the luxury of a 3-bedroom school board-owned house where I could squirrel away and listen to Bach and Mozart to my heart's content. Very few, if any kids there, had that option.

I found it interesting initially to see kids' reactions when they would stop by for a visit. I recall one boy remarking about what a big, clean house I had. At the time I found it puzzling. The house I was staying in wasn't anything special. It hardly seemed a palace. Clearly, they hadn't noticed the small mountain of laundry on the floor in one the two other empty bedrooms or the dust on the counter tops in the kitchen. I'm reasonably tidy but I can get lazy at times. (Later that fall I started getting annoyed because the tap in the bathroom sink wouldn't stop leaking and the sound kept me up at night. Now, I think about how fortunate I was to have running water.) I wondered for quite some time what would prompt someone to think I lived in a palace. And then during report card time I visited a few of the students' homes....and got the shock of my life. I won't go into all the details of what I saw but I will say, I said many times in later years, that I felt as if I had been transported to a third-world country. But I had a choice, kids didn't.

When I was a kid, I always thought it was neat when my grandparents or other elderly people talked about "the old days" and how they would boil snow to make tea or coffee. I never thought I'd have to do this....until I arrived in one community which was under a "boil water" advisory for pretty much the entire time I was there. Boiling water in a pot on my stove worked up to a point. After a few days I began noticing a rather disgusting yellow ring of crust at the top of the big pot I used. That was the day I made coffee for the first time using snow behind my house for water. At the time, it was more of an experiment to see if I could do it and filter out all the seeds, bark and dirt that might be in that snow (I did a pretty good job) and I also figured it would be a great story to tell the kids one day. Turns out that it takes a lot of snow to get a single pot of water and I quickly soured to this chore as it was rather more labour intensive than I figured. But in the end I was only making coffee. I didn't have to rely on my backyard snow for more important things like, say, basic hygiene needs. In the end, I had a choice. I didn't HAVE to live those conditions if I chose not to. Kids there didn't have that choice.

I'm sure you can see where I'm going with all this, or at least that is my hope. Before people start bashing government, or Aboriginal people or start seeing this issue as solely one of dollar signs and poor fiscal management (and I"m not saying this isn't), could we remember that there are vulnerable CANADIANS here that don't have any other choice but to live under conditions such as what I've described. (I'm sure what I did see was only a very small snap shot of the bigger picture.) If you think that the average Aboriginal person is laughing at you while they spend tax money to fund a lavish lifestyle I can disavow you of this notion. Clearly they are not living in the lap of luxury. From my own experience, communities like Attawapiskat are, sadly, not a place you want to be.

I'm sure I could write a small tome here based solely on my own experiences. Perhaps there might be a blog post for that sometime in the future. For now, I truly wish all the nay sayers, bigots, racists, red necks and other such ilk would get off their high horse. There are a lot of kids in this community who don't have a a choice. Can we not put aside our myopic thinking for a few minutes and realize that these vulnerable citizens are CANADIANS and that they deserve compassion and assistance? And while I'm at it, will politicians off all political stripes close their mouths, work together on this issue and stop using this situation to score cheap photo ops and political points?

Then, we might begin to start to accomplish something. A lot of kids in one small northern community are counting on us.


cpf said...

Completely agree with your last point: mismanaged or not, corrupt or not, [racial stereotype about those lazy indians] or not, these people are about to go into another winter living in glorified cardboard boxes. Everyone involved needs to stop pointing fingers and start trying to solve the problem.

Theresa said...

Brilliant. I too have spent time on First Nations reserves and things need to change. We have a responsibility to our fellow citizens of this country. Thank you for writing this, Darcy, it was very well said and I agree!