by: Ara May Sauvage, Community Journalism Trainer
Greetings from Iskatewizaagegan* #39 Independent First Nation in Ontario. Some refer to it as Shoal Lake #39 and up until the late 1950’s it used to be one community with Shoal Lake #40, its neighbour across the lake. The city of Winnipeg, located about 2 hrs away, gets its drinking water from this area, which has literally and figuratively divided the community and left #40 on a boil-water advisory for the past 20 years. Since my arrival, I too have had to boil my water because the pipes sprung a leak.
Apparently they’re so old and need to be replaced, but there’s not enough money to do so, ergo, when one leak is repaired the ensuing regular pressure causes another leak. It’s an inconvenience, but I know it could be so much worse. I look at it as a constant reminder of why I’m here and why we need Journalists for Human Rights, because in this country there is no reason or excuse for why anyone should not have access to clean drinking water in their homes. Yet, there are about 95 First Nations communities that do not.
Human rights violations aside, this is a beautiful place. The area has been described as “National Geographic kind of beautiful” by one blogger. I’ve seen bears chilling by the side of the road, along with deer prints, Canadian and Snow geese everywhere, plus vultures and eagles circling above on a daily basis. An eagle even flew over as my local contact person, James, drove us into the community. In the summer, the area is the kind of beautiful that brings people in from all over the country to lounge and fish on its lakes. Heck, it’s so beautiful, over 200 cottages have been built by non-band members in the area despite a moratorium on development!
For me, this has been a homecoming of sorts. I’m one of the Sixties Scoop, and although I was freely put up for adoption in the 70s, I was also placed in a non-native family in accordance with the demonic policy of the time. While neither of my birth parents are from Iskatewizaagegan , it’s only a hop, skip and a jump from here to the community where my biological mother was born. My first day here, after sharing the story of how my adoptive father told me that he hadn’t wanted to adopt me because I was the ugliest baby he had ever seen, James looked at me with intensity and compassion and told me that wouldn’t happen here, that I was home.
I definitely feel at home, but I usually feel comfortable and at home wherever I am. The parental units moved my three older brothers and I every couple of years when we were growing up, so I’m used to being in new communities and having to build connections. And I’m used to sticking out because of the way I look and being an outsider. That hasn’t changed as I have made my way back to my First Nations culture. And it hasn’t changed here in Iskatewizaagegan. Just because I’m First Nations and am originally from this Treaty 3 area, that doesn’t give me a sort of free pass to being accepted into the community anymore than anyone else who is new here. I’ve been questioned and judged by some about my lack of First Nations name, language, colours and other things that I didn’t even knew existed about my culture. Still, there is something different about this feeling of home. I just haven’t figured out why that is.
One of the women pointed out the other day, via meme, that I’ll be an outsider until all the “rez dogs” accept me. So I wonder if this feeling of home has something to do with the big wolf-husky accepting me. She’s tall and looks like no other dog here, as most are mixes of german shepherds, pitbulls, boxers and rottweilers, which tend to be short and stocky. I saw her off in the distance once or twice as I walked around, but last week she walked with me to the laundromat and after casually yet cautiously giving my hand a good sniff, readily let me pet her while we sat in the sun. As a woman left with her laundry, she nonchalantly told me that the dog never lets anyone touch it and for that they call her Wimpy, which hurt my heart a little.
The other day this dog and I crossed paths and again she walked with me, and again we sat in the sun by the side of the road. Only this time she kept nudging closer while I gently caressed her head, gave her back a good scratch and spoke softly, telling her she wasn’t wimpy, that she was sweet. A man passed by, smiled and said “That’s Two-Sox”. A name more fitting given her huge front white paws. I haven’t seen her run with a pack, and she seems to be on her own even when in the presence of other dogs, a bit like an outsider. But she too looks comfortable with whatever people call her and where ever she is. I can’t help but wonder if that’s why she approached me, because she sensed we were alike in some ways. Aside from warming my heart, her acceptance reminds me again of why I’m here and why we need JHR. Because the First Nations are still outsiders in the mainstream media and society, but hopefully one day they will be accepted and once more feel at home wherever they go.
*Iskatewizaagegan is pronounced: Iss-kah-teh-wii-zah-gay-gahn