Finding Bimadizowin in Grassy Narrows

By Elizabeth McSheffrey, Community Journalism Trainer

In Ojibway, the word bimadizowin is used to describe healthy living. Loosely translated into English, it means a ‘good way of life.’

It may be one word, but in Anishinaabe culture, bimadizowin is far from a singular term. It’s more of a philosophy — a belief in balancing one’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health through the teachings of ancestors, elders and each other.

Grassy Narrows is one of many Indigenous communities walking a path toward bimadizowin. The are signs of it everywhere this month — a vibrant pow wow on National Indigenous Peoples Day that brought in dancers and drummers from across the region, a sparkling graduation ceremony that brought students and parents to tears, and oodles of positive feedback on a community photography slideshow put together by students in Grade 7 and 8.

Grass dancers Steve Land (left) and Darcy Williamson brave scorching temperatures to perform at Grassy Narrows pow-wow on National Indigenous Peoples Day, Thurs. June 21, 2018.

Part of Grassy’s bimadizowin vision, I’m told, is inspired by the Nishnawbe Aski Development Fund’s ‘Finding Bimadizowin’ toolkit, which guides communities in strengthening local relationships and articulating a plan for their environment, economy, land, people, programming, and housing.

I was honoured this month to have been given a role to play in this journey, working with local staff to strengthen access to information throughout Grassy Narrows.

“We could do all the work ourselves, but we need direction from the community,” Arthur Anderson, Grassy’s comprehensive community planning co-ordinator, told me during a workshop this week.

I’m helping him create a website that will engage the First Nation’s residents in creating a plan and vision for bimadizowin in Grassy Narrows. The goal, he said, is to give community members a forum to “provide feedback and direction” on the journey, and keep them posted on the latest decisions and policies pertaining to those goals.

It’s not journalism per se, but its mission is aligned with that of a good reporter: improving civic engagement and access to information for citizens.

Access to information, I’ve come to understand, is a major barrier to civic engagement in Grassy Narrows. Through conversations, surveys I’ve collected, and long afternoons spent waiting for emails to load, I’ve learned that poor Internet and cell phone access hampers many residents in keeping abreast of events and decisions made in their community.

Few cell phone providers offer service in Grassy Narrows and the wireless connection is terrible, despite the community’s proximity to a small city called Kenora, where the access is as good as anywhere else.

North of 60 actor Dakota House does a team-building exercise with elementary students at Sakatcheway Anishinabe School in Grassy Narrows on June 5, 2018. The afternoon event was part of Going Miles, a program designed to empower Indigenous youth through education and entertainment that increases self-confidence. Photo by Skyla Roulette.
Students in senior kindergarten, Grade 8 and Grade 12 graduate during a special ceremony at Sakatcheway Anishinabe School on Wed. June 20, 2018.

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to freedom of expression includes the freedom to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The right to information — including reasonable Internet access — is something I’ve discussed in workshops with the Grade 7 and 8 students, who are keen on having better Internet access at their school.

Indeed, there’s a strong appetite for more streamlined connections in Grassy Narrows. Recently, someone started a petition to get better Internet access for the whole community. Posted in the general store, it quickly raked in dozens of signatures.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve been approached about restarting the community’s old radio station, setting up a network of televisions at community buildings to broadcast local news, and designing a website for chief and council that will provide the public better access to its leadership, along with regular news and event updates.

Grassy Narrows is a solution-oriented First Nation and I’m happy to be of service where I can.

Work on chief and council’s website has already begun, and while the community is still a ways away from setting up TV and radio stations, I’ve been working with local youth to strengthen audiovisual reporting skills, so they’ll hit the ground running once the radio and TV infrastructure is in place.

Journalism — the art of truth-telling, serving as a watchdog for democracy and amplifying the voices of marginalized peoples — has certainly been a part of my own journey to bimadizowin. In some shape or form, I like to think that access to information, strengthened civic engagement and learning these media skills will contribute to finding bimadizowin in Grassy Narrows as well.

Community journalism training is an integral part of JHR’s larger Indigenous Reporters Program. In-community training in Ontario is generously supported by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

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