I can fluently speak my Cree language and I know how to survive on the land. I owe these skills to the fact that I grew up surrounded by my parents and Elders in my home community of Attawapiskat. How big a deal is this? Well, it makes me who I am as a First Nation person and grounds me or connects me to my people and the land.
Still, this was not enough to assist me in having a life. I had to admit to myself that I had a problem with addictions and I reached out for the necessary knowledge and skills to figure much of that out. Thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous and some good friends who were on the trail of recovery and sobriety, I managed to pick up many useful skills to deal with my addictions.
My Elders played a role in helping me on this trail also and I am forever grateful to them. Being grateful plays a big part in my sobriety because I have to keep reminding myself how fortunate I am to have a good life. When I learned that Mattagami First Nation was making an effort to create a Senior Citizen Multi-Use Complex in their community I immediately connected to how important this type of project is for my people.
As First Nation people, who we are comes from the teachings and guidance of our Elders. Many Native communities across Canada have lost their language and traditions and that means they are losing their way in life. Our First Nations are experiencing so many problems with addictions, abuse, poverty, sickness and suicide. For many of our First Nations, our young people are growing up without those familiar Elders I once knew as they are now passing on or leaving the community to facilities in the south. All their knowledge, skills and experience is being lost and that makes me sad.
Thankfully, people like Jennifer Constant, Chief Walter Naveau, Juanita Luke and all the council members, staff and Elders of Mattagami First Nation are working to develop a safe, culturally appropriate and active home for their Elders and others from First Nations in the area. Jennifer has been meeting with health professionals on the federal, provincial and local levels to try to put this much-needed home and health service in place.
Right now Elders from the community and other First Nations must be moved out of their familiar home locations to facilities in outside towns and cities. Sadly, this means that our Elders – many of whom had to endure the horrors of the residential school system – once again have to leave their homes to be housed in institutions outside their communities. They must leave their families, friends and familiar settings where they can speak their language, practice their traditions and culture, and socialize on the land.
I am sad that our Elders have to endure this uprooting and move to institutions that cannot possibly make them feel at home in their own space that is culturally appropriate. Our Elders need to be respected and honoured in their final years. Caring for them will assist our First Nations in so many ways. The plan at Mattagami First Nation is to create a culturally appropriate place where our Elders can still be connected to the community and be included in decision-making in terms of their guidance and experience. They also assist our youth in particular with their knowledge of our traditions and culture and of course the language.
The Elders would be associated with the local First Nation school curriculum and play a part in the students’ education. They would also be included in the decision-making by chief and council and remain an active part of the community. I urge our federal, provincial and regional government representatives to invest in our First Nations youth and membership in general by moving ahead with this type of Elders’ complex. Rather than throw money at outside mental health and social workers, it would make more sense to keep our Elders in their home so that they can help heal our communities.
In the words of Jennifer and her team in Mattagami First Nation, this type of development for our Elders is what reconciliation is all about. It is our opportunity to right many wrongs and to do so with the idea of a healing that only our Elders can provide. Our heads of government need to quit stalling and make this Elders’ complex a reality. Keep our Elders with us.