by Julie Price
Organizing a group of eight people from across Canada to visit a small, fly-in First Nation in the northern boreal forest of Manitoba comes with its share of stress and challenges. Will the cloud ceiling be high enough for our planes to fly? Will the local boat drivers be at the dock when we need them? Will trip participants new to this experience feel culture shock? Will the community feel heard and supported, or god-forbid – inspected?
It is with some relief, much joy, and many tough but important questions remaining that we ended our week in Garden Hill First Nation, Treaty 5 territory.
The community people in Garden Hill demonstrated determination to move their people into a stronger, healthier place. Fishers shared stories explaining why the work matters, why the fish matter, why keeping culture strong matters. Shyness slipped away as a group of grade 8 boys toured us through their school showing us the resources to help them grow their bodies and minds. At Meechim Farm we learned about the sweat invested into achieving the vision of a farm for Garden Hill and the associated ‘fresh market’ that increases community access to healthy foods.
All of this effort in the midst of the obvious challenges of limited and poor housing, incomplete services (sewer, water), a very young local population (half of the community is 18 or younger), high prices and low incomes, and the presence of gangs and violence in the community. People continue to amaze and inspire me in their perseverance and spirit and their commitment to a better quality of life for future generations.
Our visitor group was welcomed, and as the days passed, the sense of open exchange grew. Local people were amazed that we stayed for more than one day; that we kept showing up each morning. Increasingly open exchange with the community helped us to have deeper reflective conversations each evening. What is our role in northern indigenous projects? How best do we partner with northern indigenous communities in a supportive and productive way? How do we navigate and understand the complex challenges and opportunities faced by northern boreal people? How can a collaborative group of northern advisors, private funders, government funders, and supportive organizations work to reduce barriers and increase opportunity in northern indigenous communities? Can we even do this at all and should we be here? It is good to consider these questions and even better to work them through as a group.
Of course I don’t have all of the answers to those big questions. But as a group, I know we have more diverse perspectives, enhanced reflective powers, a broader set of skills and experiences, and more hearts and minds to apply to the task of becoming good partners in this important work. And I do firmly believe that we cannot begin without first sitting down with community members and trying to understand and learn from each other. We cannot become good partners without investing the time to know each other.
Heartfelt thanks to those in Garden Hill who were so welcoming, and helpful, and really made our trip possible. Thanks also to the trip participants who made the time and effort to be part of the continuing conversation. Finally, gratitude to the earth for keeping the cloud ceiling high, mostly holding off the rain and snow, and allowing our visitor group to see the beauty of northern Manitoba!