In 2009, I spent a week home in New Brunswick, leaving in Toronto a book I planned to read on my return.
Arriving in NB I saw that the book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, was the title chosen by my hometown for their first annual community read, and the author, Ishmael Beah, was coming to speak. I altered my itinerary to attend. I was as compelled by Beah’s speaking* as I soon would be by his writing. (*Beah was more intimate and candid in the crowded school gym than on George Stroumboulopoulos.)
Beah’s closing remark at that community event was that, despite horrors he had known in his native Sierra Leone, he remembers it still as his beloved homeland and as a place of more than just war stories. He challenged us to learn about far-away places without waiting to hear about them only as news stories when there is an uprising or an earthquake.
Finally, now, I will begin a monthly look at some part of the world that is not dominating ephemeral headlines. I begin with a place where I lived and worked for several months as a substitute teacher a dozen years ago. Though in the middle of Canada, it felt in some ways more foreign than Gangneung, Korea or Torreón, Mexico.
You Are Here:
Berens River First Nation, Manitoba
Located on the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg and accessible only by boat, tiny planes landing on gravel, or winter road (driving across Lake Winnipeg will keep you awake), Berens River will not be hosting the next Olympics or G20 Summit. The population is something like 1,400 – slightly more than the enrolment at my old high school.
The first language on the reserve is Anishinaabe (a.k.a. Ojibwe, etc.) although I heard locals refer to themselves as Saulteaux (/soto/) which is a dialect of Ojibwe – but everyone speaks English there because, unlike most Canadians, the people of Berens River are fluently bilingual. (Ironically, I didn’t meet any Saulteaux – French for “people of the rapids” – who spoke French.)
Here are some things I remember about Berens River.
You could call it a one-horse town:
- One hotel (which had the only restaurant and bar)
- One store (where food was four times as expensive as in urban eastern Canada)
- One school (K-12)
- One hockey arena
- One RCMP officer
- One road
A typical phone conversation:
Voice: Can you teach grade 7 in the afternoon?
Me: Yeah, sure.
Voice: [ click ]
That was the vice principal. Friendly and pleasant in person. I thought I’d done something wrong, but I found that was the phone etiquette no matter who called. The phone is a machine. It did its job. Let’s not be so formal with that hello/goodbye stuff.
Although interactions at the school and the store (the only places I went) were always pleasant, I did not mix in the community. The teachers lived in a clump of houses beside the school. Walking the 100 meters to the school was like a commute from the suburbs to the reserve.
Most of what I “learned” when I lived there was in fact only reported to me. Here are some things I heard:
- I heard of and read about violence and substance abuse being commonplace on some reserves (and gained some appreciation for a few of the reasons why), but never saw any sign of either.
- I heard school staff saying their houses had been without water for two weeks. (No problems of any sort in the teachers’ ‘suburb’.)
- I heard that a bright cheerful boy I knew in the grade seven class was quite illiterate, despite being the son of a prominent member of the school staff.
- I heard many tales of a Black Robe (or whatever they call them now) preaching about sinners, pointing at teachers and telling the students not to believe what they say and not to follow the example they set. A teacher told me that a little girl asked in tears at recess if it was true what the minister said, that on that millennial New Year’s Eve the world would end and she would go to hell. I wish such a minister would practice what he preached.
Having lived there for several months, what do I now know about life on a reserve? Only that I have scarcely any idea what it’s like. And that realization is a hell of a lot more than I knew before.