ATTAWAPISKAT, ONT.—If she had a magic wand, Rosie Koostachin would change many things in her community. There would be better housing, health care and education. There would be more jobs and there would be no drug and alcohol abuse. Oh, and the reserve would be better run.
But there is no magic wand. Neither is one on its way.
Koostachin, the wise 42-year-old mother of four and grandmother of one, knows that.
“Attawapiskat hasn’t changed in decades ... I don’t think it ever will. It can’t. I was born here, I was raised here and I have raised all my kids here. The problems I saw four decades ago ... they are problems we still face.”
PHOTOS:Life in Attawapiskat
Health care and education will always be a challenge. The dropout rate at the local high school will stay at more than 50 per cent. So will poverty. There will be no employment opportunities. Entertainment will at best be non-existent except around Christmas. The local cost of living will always be expensive (a single red pepper costs $3.99 and half dozen bananas $2.89).
It is the truth.
Koostachin is not the only one who says so. She may be brave enough to talk openly about it but others say the same thing privately: Attawapiskat, home to about 1,900 people, can likely never be fixed. In the long run it is unsustainable.
“But this is also our home,” says Koostachin, throwing her hands in the air.
It is a conundrum.
ATTAWAPISKAT HAS a long list of problems.
The community was founded in 1893 by Catholic missionaries. The steepled church, an aging grey structure next to the Attawapiskat River, remains the most striking structure.
In 1901, the Hudson’s Bay Co. built a store here. Most natives lived in the bush at the time, hunting, trapping and fishing, and it was only in the 1930s that the settlement began to grow. Housing came in the 1970s, running water and sewage treatment arrived in the 1990s.
It’s been unravelling since it all began.
The isolated Cree reserve’s problems exist, and persist, mostly due to its location.
For much of the year, it is accessible only by air, which complicates life here terribly. For example, home repairs are near impossible because neither materials nor skills are available locally. There is no permanent doctor at the local hospital. Pregnant women must be flown either to Moosonee, a larger reserve on nearby James Bay, or to Timmins, Ont. Teachers and nurses, almost all non-aboriginal, feel marooned and don’t stick around too long.
The one non-aboriginal who has remained in the community is, perhaps, also its most loved.
Father Rodrigue Vezina first came here 39 years ago. He has never left, except to spend a couple of weeks every summer with his family in Quebec City.
The Oblate priest says he has spent a lot of time, especially during the long dark winters, thinking about the reserve’s future and how it can be improved. The answer eludes him.
“Problems are not being solved ... I wonder if they ever can be,” he says.
Vezina believes the only way that things may change here is by extensive job training so that locals can provide services in such areas as health care, construction and education.
Jobs are the key to shaking up the reserve, he says. “People need to have a reason to wake up every morning.”
(The reserve has almost no economy; as a result unemployment is at 70 per cent. Most people live on social assistance.)
But Vezina, frail and thoughtful, understands it’s easier said than done. He is familiar with the difficulties faced by the elementary and high schools, where teachers usually don’t stay for more than a year or two and students don’t attend class regularly.
The children feel no obligation to attend because they wake up in households where they have never seen their parents go to work. “What is the point, they think,” says Vezina.
No education, no employment. It’s that simple, he sighs.
But it’s the hopelessness among the youth that really bothers Willie Sprule, who works at the Northern, the lone grocery store in Attawapiskat.
He sees them hang around aimlessly at the store during school hours and tries to shoo them back to class. “It bothers me,” he says. “You know, we think more about these problems than you think we do.”
SOME PEOPLE IN the south tend to dismiss the plight of the Cree-speaking people of this reserve — and other isolated communities in the north — as the self-inflicted fate of people unable to shift for themselves and unwilling to let go of the past.
It’s easy to pass judgment from hundreds of kilometres away — but it’s also tough to understand their love of this land, which can be harsh and unforgiving.
Mornings are quiet and cold. One hour blurs into another, as does one day into another. The only sound, most times, is of snowmobiles whizzing by or dogs playing with each other. This world is a dozen or so blocks of single-storey homes and little else.
Why would anyone choose to live here, in this stark wilderness?
It’s a question that Heather Kooiman, who’s from the Hamilton area, up the wall. She is fiercely protective of the reserve and its people.
“Because it’s their land, where they belong,” she says.
Kooiman, a McGill University graduate, is one of the nurses at the local hospital, which she admits really is just a clinic.
She was here for a few months last winter and liked the work enough to return this winter. She says living here has made her realize that “issues between native and non-native people are so broken. It is so important to build the relationship between the two.”
This is their land, this is how they live and this is how they want to live, she says. “It may be difficult for us to understand why they have this tie, but this is their world and we have to respect it instead of imposing our opinions on them.”
THE WORLD IN Attawapiskat is small but it’s the only one residents know, the one they are comfortable in.
It’s not as if people have not tried to leave, says Serena Koostachin, chief of the youth council. They have, and it hasn’t gone well in many cases.
Young people are terrified of leaving the reserve, says Koostachin (who is not related to Rosie Koostachin). “They have seen others leave (for college) but eventually return because either they couldn’t cope with education in a new place or feel insecure without their families.”
She knows the feeling. She left the reserve after Grade 10 to attend a non-aboriginal high school in New Liskeard, Ont. Koostachin says she did miserably there and couldn’t wait to return to the reserve.
She says most high school graduates who leave to go to college or university return within a year or so.
Rosie Koostachin says it is not just people in their teens or in their 20s who come back. Families have moved away to get jobs or provide a better education for their kids but 95 per cent of them end up back in Attawapiskat.
The family structure is very sound here, she says. “People help each other with clothes, food ... When they move out, they find it hard to survive without it.”
Koostachin almost left the reserve once. It was in 2005, when she and her family were homeless and they were living in a house with a collapsed floor. In one of her bleakest moments, she thought of moving off the reserve.
But she didn’t.
She, like everyone else here, talks earnestly about how much she loves nature and the land and what it means to her. “When I go to the James Bay, it is a spiritual moment,” she says. “I’m the happiest then.”
In most beleaguered communities, happiness is a ghost. Not here.
Even though hardships are piled one over the other, Attawapiskat hasn’t become desolate and tired. The suffering is real, so is the gentle acceptance of life the way it is. Despite the cold, people laugh, joke and go about their life.
This is our life, says Koostachin.
“We will be poor. We will always live in poverty. We know that,” she says. “But as long as we live on this land, we will always be OK.