Finding my way in Eabametoong

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By Leigh Nunan, Community Journalism Trainer

I had been staring out the window, mesmerized by the treetops as they rushed up towards me.

I didn’t hear the pilot’s announcement. There are several stops on this flight through northwestern Ontario. I ask another passenger where we are now, he tells me: Fort Hope.

I’d been looking forward to this moment for months but now it’s caught me off guard. It’s a short flight from Sioux Lookout and my arrival feels too sudden. I scramble to gather up my things and hurry down the narrow steps and finally set foot in Eabametoong.

Two big signs are there, reassuring me that I’m in the right place as I make my way to the small airport building.
Inside, friends and family are greeting the passengers who arrived on my flight. I scan their faces, trying to recognize my contact, Wayne, although I have never seen him before. Rather, I’m looking for that expression that reads “I’m looking for someone” but I don’t see him.

My phone doesn’t work here. I don’t know where I’m supposed to go. I’ve got eight months’ worth of baggage – more than I can carry alone. There’s nothing to do but wait, but mercifully I don’t wait long.

Wayne helps me load my bags into the back of his truck and we join his young granddaughter, Sunshine, in the cab. Aptly named, Sunshine keeps the conversation bright as Wayne takes us on a tour of the community. The new part of town, the old part. Band office, clinic, cable station. A tiny blue building, which is actually a convenience store; Corny’s Convenience Store, which is actually the grocery store; White Clay North (WCN), which I’m thrilled to see is coffee shop. It’s all a bit of a blur.

It’s a long weekend, and I’m left to my own devices for the next three days. First things first, I walk to to Corny’s to stock up. Well, I try. It’s a small community and I was given a tour just the day before, but somehow I manage to get lost anyways.

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There’s a woman walking in the same general direction. I catch up to ask for directions but she asks me immediately “teacher or nurse?” I may not have my bearings yet, but she’s got my number. I am indeed here to teach. I tell her a little about the Indigenous journalism program and we chat as she walks with me to Corny’s. She was headed there anyways.

Over the next days and weeks there will be many more walks and I will I learn a lot more than I teach.

I learn where the best place is to find blueberries (out past Pioneer Pit) and the best place to find bears (the dump). Although either can be found just about anywhere.

I learn to pronounce Eabametoong: ab-me-tung (almost like Edmonton), that texting is the best way to get in touch with people, and that the Internet works best at 6 a.m.

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Every walk becomes a guided tour. Here Tessa shows me the place where her grandfather had a cabin. There Leslie points out the tree that marks the place where the treaty was signed. That is the best place for tobogganing, the ladies at WCN laugh as they explain why the hill is known as Mount Extreme.

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Wayne takes me to meet people around the band office. We pass one office where there are street signs piled high on a desk. I’m told they’re just waiting on the hardware to start putting them up. I was handed a map, street names and house numbers neatly labelled. It’s hanging on my wall now, but I have never needed to use it.

I couldn’t tell you how to get to Black Bear Cresent or Waswa Avenue, and I suspect that I would be laughed at if I tried. I could meet you at the old pow wow grounds or the new inn though. I’m glad I didn’t have street signs to guide me as I learned my way around. The best map of Eabametoong is drawn not with neat labels but in memories, in history and inside jokes. It has been a privilege to hear the stories of this place and the people who live here. And it will be a privilege to spend these next months working to get these stories out in the world.

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Sunset over Eabametoong First Nation.

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