Report from Artist-as-Teacher, Glenn Marais on Oct 16
It has a stark, rugged beauty up here.
The trees are mostly deciduous and a dull green from the morning frost. There are sparse patches of snow. The ground and tufts of red are colored orange by the rising sun. Lakes dot the landscape as we approach and, in this preserve beauty, I can see and feel the spirit of this beautiful land. Not being a First Nations person, I can only imagine what feelings are in their hearts as they fly home. The beauty is fleeting, for the reality that waits is harsh and temperate. There are few fairy tales here and the harsh boot of reserve life kicks at you from all corners. Xenophobia awaits outside her borders so you feel a sanctuary inside. But perhaps it is the same security that a long term prisoner would feel. Safety in the knowledge of your existence but locked in and without freedoms, your soul is weighed down and can only fly so far on Icarus wings. You can fly but not too close to the sun or you will fall without mercy: back to the hollow cage of the reserve. Family and culture are your home and it must be hard and scary to imagine leaving to find a future.
Fort Hope kids have to go to high school in Thunder Bay and are subject to all manner of challenges in this city away from home. Overt racism, ostracizing by a xenophobic community, loneliness, isolation all lead to a rise in drug abuse, teen pregnancy and, most alarming, a suicide rate that is epidemic.
First Nations people have contended with boil water advisories, poor inadequate housing, band corruption, nepotistic hierarchy that awards the best jobs to a select few and bleak employment opportunities, in isolated communities hundreds of miles away from modern conveniences and opportunities. These facts and statistics are reported in the back pages and occasionally burst forth when a tragedy or disaster occurs, as in Attawapiskat last year when the Red Cross declared the community to be under a national crisis. The public response was shock and outrage at the conditions described in this community within Canadian borders: Canadian people denied the basic tenants and rights of citizenship by virtue of their birth heritage and historical legacy that has been, for too many years now, subjected to the cruelty and oppression of a self-righteous colonialist society.
We ask a lot of our First Nations people. We ask them to share their magnificent culture at ceremonies and governmental displays of pomp and pageantry. We ask for their art and culture to sell and gift on the global stage as representative of a Canada that is viewed as a multi-cultural jewel. And yet the truth is the diamond is encrusted with coal by the dark shadow of truth. A bitter truth of a history that robbed a culture of an entire generation through the residential school system and left its children in a spiritual and cultural orphanage: raised by parents who had been raised without love, alone, away from their families; hair cut and tongues silenced. This generation grows up amidst the rampages of tortured souls. Their parents’ pain manifested with drug abuse, loveless homes and empty hearts.
We ask them to carry on living in this quagmire we have created and offer few lasting or meaningful attempts to help. Where is the true Canada we sell to the world available for purchase in our north? We ask for truth and reconciliation and treat it as a sideshow, without offering long term counselling and support once the old wounds have been ripped open during testimonials required to receive financial compensation.
The amounts received can never balance a lifetime of pain. And why do we throw money at people who are trying to heal? Is it “here’s your pay; now go away?” Is it a lack of commitment to our higher ideals as declared in our parliamentary constitution? Or is it that we are just as lost and have forgotten how to treat each other with grace and dignity?
|The natural beauty of Webequie|
I struggle with the idea of solutions every time that I work with the wonderful First Nations youth that I am privileged to meet and have gotten to know as friends and family over the last four years as a DAREarts artist-teacher. My own ego has taken a battering up here and hubris replaced by hope despite the desperation. My hope and belief come from the trips up here and the knowledge that coming every year is important and signifies our commitment to the people of Webequie as a family and….it a project. It is this philosophy, perhaps, that can open the door to true healing and a new Canada; that we look as First Nations as our family and ask ourselves how we allow this to happen to them and not do everything in our power to improve their lives and bring back the light of hope into our people’s eyes.