In recent days, the Canadian media has focused its collective gaze on Kashechewan, the tiny native community on the shores of James Bay in Ontario. Much has been made of the town's contaminated water, which has sickened hundreds of residents and forced many to be evacuated. But having lived and worked in Kashechewan, I can report that water problems are just the tip of the iceberg. In almost every respect, Kashechewan is a very sick place.
Kasechewan is a recent Canadian scandal, about drinking water supplies on the Cree reserve, in northern Ontario, contaminated with E. coli. Many of the reserve's residents were evacuated to cities in southern Ontario, and the provincial and federal governments have promised millions in aid, to fix the water supply, houses, and schools. Gough's article, about her brief time teaching in a Kasechewan school, makes me wonder if those millions will make any difference in such a sick place that may not be able to be healed. What we need to do is to turn the clock back, well before the misbegotten idea of reserves was put forth. I've quoted much of Gough's searing article, making for a long post, but you'll get no apologies from me. And you should really click on the link above to read the article in its entirety, including Gough's worst example of student behavior.
My experience in Kashechewan generated a complete unravelling of almost everything I believed. Until then, I romanticized Third World and native cultures. Unfairly, I put those people on a pedestal, somehow expecting them to be wiser than people from my own culture, more connected to the land, perhaps even possessing an ancient knowledge that our culture had lost eons ago. ...How on earth do you help? What on earth do you, can you, do?
Let me relate some highlights of that first morning: Dead animals were thrown around the classroom -- mice, sparrows, small rats. At one point, something I thought was the tail of a mink torpedoed toward me. When the rusty-coloured object landed on my desk, I looked down in horror at the braid of my hair. I reached up to feel my newly cropped hairstyle. Somehow, during the chaos, one of the kids had put his or her scissors to use. The curtains were torn down and used as a giant hammock. Books were cut up, scribbled upon and chewed. Nothing I did to try to prevent any of this had any effect. I was a non-entity. Already I'd aged five years and lost my voice. My hands were shaking. It was 10 a.m. I'd "get used to it," the other teachers told me.
The other teachers were wrong. I never got used to it. It never got better. But at least I had the advantage of knowing that if I really wanted to I could escape that sad little ice village and join my own culture again. These children and their parents were caught in a no-man's land, lost between two worlds -- one foreign, the other going extinct.
As time went by, I realized that very little native culture remains today in sub-Arctic Canada. Once, small bands of nomadic Cree roamed the territory, hunting, fishing and gathering. Today, most live in villages year-round in pre-fab houses, unemployed, on welfare and getting their highly processed food at the Hudson's Bay store. The vast quantities of sugar consumed daily by the kids is evident in their rotting teeth. Here and there, some of the old ways still exist: Twice a year, school is shut down for a week-long goose hunt. (The children were excellent goose callers, as they demonstrated daily in class.) But otherwise, it's simply a squalid imitation of the white man's world.
I was astounded by the discipline problems in the school -- until I observed the cause: These children's lives weren't structured in the way of most children's lives in the south. Children are rarely told what to do or not to do. They may sleep at a different house every night. Meals are rarely eaten together as a family. When I would ask the kids what they had for lunch, Mars bars, Coke and potato chips were the usual replies.
Television, it seemed to me, was the main culprit in destroying what little the people had left of their culture. Within a year of the first TV's arrival in the village in the late 1980s, the nurses told me, children began to fight regularly and swear at the teachers -- behaviour that had previously been rare. No longer were they content with their homemade toys; they wanted plastic guns instead.
In the times when the Cree embraced a traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle, their ancestors' parenting methods would have worked. Allowing children to roam freely without rules helps them develop useful survival skills. But now that the people no longer hunt and gather to survive, this child-rearing method no longer works. Children typically become depressed and hostile by their early teens. The anger lasts into adulthood, where it's often accompanied by hatred toward all outsiders. Teachers would sometimes be pelted with rocks and snowballs as we walked down the road. Across the river, someone had hung the female principal's dog by a noose so it dangled dead on her front porch when she stepped out to work one morning.
Most parents were not the least bit interested in encouraging education or reading to their children. One reason, I had to remind myself, was that up until the 1960s, generations of parents had been taken away to residential schools at early ages. No wonder many of these adults had few parenting skills: They'd never had the chance to learn such skills from their own parents.
It was also evident that the very few who did manage to get away from the reserve to complete their educations rarely returned. This was understandable -- but it meant the community had few educated, positive role models. ...
After three months, I began waking up with headaches and dark circles under my eyes. One day in class, I think it was the day when the kids had stolen my house keys -- they regularly stole things, but I really needed those keys -- I felt so defeated and exhausted that something in me simply gave up. I sat at my desk and watched bleary-eyed as they whirled around the room like dervishes, destroyed every remaining book and sprayed glue into each other's faces. I couldn't fight it anymore. In one last-ditch effort, I invited the parents into my class to help me, but none of them showed up. ...
I had gone to Kashechewan naively looking for a culture that no longer exists. Instead, I found abuse everywhere -- of children, women, animals and even the land itself, supposedly the subject of so much cultural veneration. On the reserve, open sewage was emptied into the streams; garbage was thrown all over the place; and every year, on Dead Dog Day, stray dogs were shot and thrown into the river, turning the water an alarming, brilliant red.
I have no idea what the answers are. But I do know I came away with the feeling that somewhere along the line, a great injustice had been done to those kids. In time, they will turn into equally dysfunctional adults, never having had the chance to succeed and thrive in a healthy community.