This past weekend I reached the three month mark of living in Sachigo Lake First Nation as a journalism trainer for the Indigenous Reporters Program. Before moving here I was nervous about being able to – or frankly, not be able to – adjust to living in a small community. Currently, there is less than 500 people living here, which is a significant drop from the 1.6 million that I’m used to in Montreal.
I was warned that taking the job would be a test of my ability to cope with isolation, but honestly I’ve found the opposite. The thing with living in a large city is that you can walk the streets for hours, and not once come across a familiar face. You develop a feeling of anonymity, which depending on your mood can either be a blessing or a curse. Because I worked as a freelancer from home, I could go days without speaking to people. Some days I would make a point to visit the convenience store, if only to buy a pack of gum and interact with another person.
Here in Sachigo Lake, people know who I am and why I’m here even before I meet them. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “You’re the journalist, right?” While others will approach me and introduce themselves simply because I’m not a familiar face. The social connectedness that one feels in a small community is unlike anything I’ve experienced living in a big city. Like the theme song from Cheers suggests, there’s something nice about being “where everybody knows your name.”
The best example of the social connectedness I’ve experienced happened a little over a month ago. Rumours had been spreading that there was a female black bear roaming the community with her two cubs. I was warned that they were spotted near the hotel where I’m living, which is a half a mile outside of the community. While this made me nervous to walk or bike along the dirt road I frequented daily, I kind of felt like the warnings were a test of my city girl country courage. People would warn me, but laugh it off like it’s no big deal, saying I had nothing to worry about.
As the bears were spotted more frequently, I had more and more people approach me at the Northern Store or on the street to tell me to be careful. And I noticed that they would no longer laugh it off.
Days went by and I was beginning to question whether or not the bears would ever pop out of the woods, but finally I had my first glimpse of them. They walked out of the bush and straight to the garbage bin, where the mother bear easily tore off the corner of the door, giving her free reign to pull out all the garbage bags and have quite the feast.
Within the hour of the bears appearing in my backyard, I received numerous calls from people concerned for my safety. They were calling to make sure I made it home, and would stress that I must be careful when leaving the hotel over the next week, since the bears would probably return. For a few days after that, people would pick me up along the dirt road and drive me into the community, which helped ease my fear of walking the dirt road.
From my encounter with the bears, I realized how generous and caring the people of Sachigo Lake are. When it comes to emergency situations, they are quick to respond, and they take extra effort to make sure everyone is safe. This reality is so dramatically different from what I would expect in a large city. While the anonymity I experience in Montreal is often great, I sometimes wonder how long it would take my friends to realize if I go missing. I know, a pretty macabre thought, but that’s sometimes where your mind wanders while walking down an empty street at 2:00 am.
The social connectedness of Sachigo Lake is also proving to be helpful when it comes to brainstorming story ideas with my trainees. The hours of online research I remember having to do to find the perfect source is never something my trainees have to go through. To pinpoint an interview I only have to ask my trainees, since I know at least one of them will know the best person to talk to. The fear of cold calling potential sources is not something one experiences here in Sachigo Lake.
The only downside is trying convincing my trainees that their stories matter. I sometimes feel as though they think I’m nuts when I get excited about a potential story. The mentality here is: since everyone in Sachigo Lake already knows what’s happening in the community, what’s the point of writing about it? I find myself frequently countering this by saying, “Well I didn’t know about that, and I find it interesting, so I’m sure someone in Sioux Lookout or Thunder Bay would love to hear your story.”
The moral here: small stories are important.
But even as I write that line, I can’t help but think of my time in j-school, and the lingering question: are small stories really newsworthy? Maybe that’s where the problem lies. Maybe we have to expand the definition of newsworthy, because quite frankly the stories of the people from Sachigo Lake continue to surprise, teach, and entertain me.
— Stephanie Cram