By: Kimberley Hartwig, Community Journalism Trainer
It was only a few days before I departed Thunder Bay for this place that I learned its name and wrapped my tongue around its unfamiliar syllables, Ni-bin-a-mik. Nibinamik is a small reserve of about 400 people nestled amongst picturesque lakes and stately swaths of trees. In the three weeks I have spent here so far I have begun to learn more about this place, its people, and its history. I have heard stories of death and destruction, of loss and despair, but the community and its people remain.
Nibinamik is an intentional community. After being displaced to the surrounding reserves of Landsdowne House and Webequie, about 100 people decided to make the journey back to their traditional lands. The journey to Nibinamik took four days and over forty portages. More people soon followed, seeking a chance at a better life and a return to the place their ancestors had called home. Once here they built houses from trees culled in the surrounding woods and set about building a community, a new place to call home.
My journey to Nibinamik began long before I set foot on the small plane that would bring me here. I have long been interested in the history between settler and Indigenous peoples in Canada and how to improve this often fraught relationship. I decided to follow this impulse to a master’s program that took me across Europe, learning about what happens when people of different cultures come in contact with one another. I studied the positive things that can happen: an expanded understanding of the world, friendships between previously disparate people, trying new and exciting food. But I also studied the negative outcomes: genocide, colonialism, war.
Nibinamik and its people still bear the scars of centuries of colonialism inflicted upon them. Many youths have taken their own lives, casting a dark shadow over the community, and drugs continue to weasel their way in. But this is only one part of the story. This is also a community that is deeply invested in their healing journey and in reclaiming the land that they were once forced from. The very existence of Nibinamik is radical. It spits in the face of settler-colonialism and says, “I am here”.
What to make of my presence on this land, then? Here, I am a guest, invited to this place to give people the tools they need to tell their story, to share their voice, to resist the forces that try to whittle them down. My coming here is intentional, too. But how to balance this intention with the reality that I am a settler not so different from those that forced the people of Nibinamik from this place not so long ago?
Before I returned to Canada my master’s program hosted a conference on the intersection of academia and activism so we might learn how to use our knowledge in a way that is beneficial to the communities and people we work with. One message that came through loud and clear was to put the communities at the centre. Everything we do should be led by them and for them. After all, the people know their community best and know what is best for it.
So this is my place, following the lead of the people who have invited me here. Patiently waiting for them to show me the steps they would like to take, what they would like to build. And I will hold the tools.