That long and winding road

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The Ontario government has announced it will build an all-season road to the province’s far north. This is mostly to help in the expansion of resource development projects in the proposed Ring of Fire mining area. A secondary benefit is to provide all-season access to remote Native communities and hopefully the James Bay Coast.

Growing up in Attawapiskat, my life was far removed from the rest of the world. Whenever we saw non-Native people, we viewed them as outsiders intruding into our world because they mostly had to do with either the government, the church or the Hudson Bay Company (Northwest Company).

We were comfortable in our own world, and communicated in the Cree language. Back then, everyone spoke Cree and we found it strange to use English. We poked fun at those who spoke English.

Our lives back then were closer to our culture. Our food came from the land and we followed our nomadic lifestyle of living in the wilderness even though we were assigned to a reserve. We all spent a lot of time on our traditional family lands.

A disconnectedness from the rest of the modern world also came with many negative drawbacks. We never felt part of the greater country called Canada. We did not have access to the best education, we could not access good medical care and all the riches of the outside world seemed unobtainable to us.

We learned about the outside world through movies, television shows and radio broadcasts. We knew this outside world was only an airplane flight away but we feared heading out into the great unknown.

As a teenager, it was sometimes frustrating for me and my friends to see the latest trends, ideas, fashion and art changes happening in the outside world while we were stuck in our remote homeland. As young people we craved to see what was out there and take part in it. Sometimes we felt lonely, even though we were surrounded by our own people because everyone we knew as Elders and family seemed to be living in the past.

We all knew a wider world was out there waiting to be explored but it was almost impossible to get to. We found relief in our families and our ancient culture. Whenever we felt the world pulling at us, our parents withdrew us into the wilderness and we could reconnect to the land and feel well again. They cautioned us to think twice about heading to the outside without being prepared and having a plan.

I am amazed that a few decades have changed my world so much. These days on remote First Nations, English and Cree are interchangeable among many young people. More of them are feeling connected to the rest of the world through the internet and social media. In the past couple of decades most people have obtained driver’s licenses and vehicles. This means my people in remote First Nations are heading out in all directions, traveling Canada and the world. But most of them have to fly out to distant cities to access their vehicles, trains or other transportation.

A road to the James Bay Coast will change our world. We would lose our remoteness and a unique micro-cultural experience where my people are surrounded by a way of life thousands of years old, our culture, our traditions and our Cree language.

On the other hand, I am trying to see the positive aspects in that my people will have access to so much more that the outside world has to offer.

Our leaders will have a difficult time in negotiating how the road will be built and where it will go, but they will also be challenged in developing ways to maintain and preserve our Aboriginal culture, traditions and language. They will have to balance the modern goals of business, economics and employment with keeping our Cree way-of-life for future generations. That long and winding road north is coming to all the First Nations along the James Bay Coast and we had better be ready for it.

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