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My Trip to Attawapiskat

AttawapiskatA while ago I wrote a short post about my trip to Attawapiskat.  In June 2010 I was sent to Attawapiskat to conduct some workshops for teachers of the James Bay Lowland District School Board.

In that blog (http://tiny.cc/q9z56 ) I briefly mentioned the fact that one of the teachers at Vezina Secondary School used Facebook as a tool to share ideas and assignments in her class. I was really impressed with how, given the circumstances, she still found the inspiration, energy, and commitment to transcend the difficulties at hand and successfully infuse 21st Century learning strategies into her teaching.Vezina High School

Little did I know then that this small, isolated Cree community on the James Bay Lowlands would attract so much international attention. For the last few months, almost weekly, a newspaper article about that part of our province; http://tiny.cc/yfqfd is published.

After a trip that took some fourteen hours, our arrival was met with the sad news that a local teenage girl, Shannen Koostachin, was killed in a car accident the day before our arrival.
Shannen was an activist
who fought really hard to get a new school built in her community by the Canadian Government. (See CBC News – story and video http://tiny.cc/nar52 – Nov 30, 2011). I was happy to read in this Toronto Star article http://tiny.cc/tbzgd that Attawapiskat will finally be getting a new elementary school; the seeds Shannen planted will at long last bear fruit.

The article brought back a lot of memories of a place whose reality from urbanized Southern Ontario is as far removed as its great distance from here. The images of the dusty, unkempt roads, the insanely high price of food, the sense of abandonment, and the smiling faces of very quiet children with huge inquisitive brown eyes, are still vivid in my mind. There is an immense disparity between the city we had left behind in the south of the province and this tiny village reachable only by air most of the year, framed between Quebec and Ontario way up there only a few miles from the Arctic Circle.

There is no hotel as such and so the residence of the school principal is where we would stay for the next three days. Our accommodations were simple but comfortable and we were received with great hospitality and amity.

The sun went down just before midnight; the extended day, the intermittent internet connection, and very little to watch on television, gave us a chance to stay up and converse. Our plan for an exploratory walkabout around town was thwarted by the constant clouds of dust that lifted every time a truck would speed by.  On our short, dusty walk we encountered a great number of stray dogs roaming the streets of the town.  The next day we asked about the dogs and we were told that, for many reasons, it is very hard to neuter the pups. Thus dog population control is sadly carried out a few times a year during random shootouts.

The town of Attawapiskat is a collection of some bungalows, many portable housing units some in very dire conditions, and several teepees which, we were told, are used to store and dry game.

The high school is a bright, clean, comfortable building with a lot of good facilities: modern classrooms, adequate technology, internet, projectors, a big shop with modern tools and machines. During our vistit, there were only a handful of students in the shop working with their teacher on plumbing and electrical projects.  The rest of the building was very quiet with only a few students in each classroom. We asked if the rest of the students had a special schedule or if they were on a field trip. We were told that a small delegation had gone to the funeral ceremony for Shannen. Apparently, on a given day no more than 50-60 students are in class while the rest of the 175 teenagers who should be in attendance are truant.

At the back of the high school there is a water filtration system where many residents go to fill their plastic jugs for their daily usage – and one of the few sources of easily accessible potable water.

The local residents are very spiritual, reserved people who will not freely engage in lengthy conversations. When I asked some of the youngsters why there was such a high absenteeism rate at the school, their answers were curt but matter-of-fact: “there is no point; there are no jobs; there is no way out” – One teenager said. Another added: “It’s very hard to move on once you finish high school; there is no future. The kids prefer to hang around elsewhere.” It is very hard to move and unless you can afford to fly out, you are literally grounded, because of the lack of roads and easy transportation, for the better part of nine months.

Then only buildings in town that are of any architectural relevance are the catholic Church and a statue of Our Lady. This statue sits on top of a 10 foot stand so it is accessible most of the year to the faithful of the community who go there to kneel in front of Mary and pray. In the winter months, it would be entirely covered by snow and ice if it hadn’t been placed atop of such a high stand.

I met a young man while waiting to take the plane back home, at the tiny airfield. He was holding an artist sketch pad and willingly showed me some of his art work. An amazing collection! I asked where he got the inspiration for such marvelous creations. He told me that after his father died he felt an immense sense of loss and would go into the woods and meditate or just observe, listen and simply tune in with Mother Nature.  He would draw to find peace and comfort. Often he heard comforting voices in the wind and among the swaying trees, the twirling leaves, and the morning mist.   Angelic figures escorted by eagles and majestic birds of all kinds would form and bring him messages of courage.  They gave him strength to go on. His visions were all captured by his crafty pencil on the paper now staring at me. They were magnificent prayers of hope for him -and for a community in need in this isolated tiny corner of our great north.

Our twin engine Thunder Air flight was ready to hop between many tiny communities before finally landing in Timmins were we would board a connecting Air Canada flight to Pearson. Our first stop was Kashechewan, to take off shortly after for Fort Albany, across the river . This was a five minute flight, one of the shortest in the world. Here we picked up a few more passengers and then we took off for Moosonee, Cochrane and so on hovering over across vast expanses of land, lakes, and muskeg.

It was a trip that I will never forget perhaps because many of the themes I encountered here brought me back to my own childhood experiences when I was living in a small community in southern Italy, in the late fifties and early sixties.

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