Indian, native, indigenous, aboriginal, First Nation. It has been 34 years since I first arrived to teach high school in Oxford House, Northern Manitoba. A thousand kilometers north of Winnipeg, this Cree Reserve was light years away from Cape Breton Island for this first time, 22 year old teacher. What did I know of isolated communities, impoverished living conditions and warm, friendly, hard working people?
Quite simply, like most Canadians, nothing. All most of us knew was the label of the time; Indian. The DC-3 was obviously on final approach, but to where. We touched down on the dirt strip, lumbering to a small shed with an Oxford House sign and the engines stopped. There was complete silence from the plane load of mainly new teachers and most of us were harbouring the same thoughts; what have I done? Some friendships would be forged to last a lifetime and others, not so much. Isolation means you have to accommodate idiosyncrasies “unacceptable” in the south and accommodate we did. Cold grey rain and mud greeted us as we plodded towards the school and teachers compound. Unpack, meet your housemate, go to the school and then it is the first day of three years which forever changed me professionally and personally. As I once again sit on a plane bound for Oxford House, 31 years since I left, and more than 25 since I last visited, my mind is consumed with the past. As is the way with memory, my students or at least my homeroom classes, are frozen in time, forever 16. It is difficult, if not impossible, to adequately and accurately describe life as a teacher or at least for this teacher in Oxford House School in 1977. Quite simply it was, for me, a teaching utopia. Polite, hard working students eager to learn, full of fun and devilment and open and generous with their culture epitomize my teaching years. Were there issues; of course. Was everyone motivated; of course not. However, by and large, teachers were on a pedestal whether they deserved to be or not and my southern counterparts would shake their heads in disbelief when I would tell them about my “kids”. These were students who entered school with a smile and hung around after school was over to use the gym or to hang out with the teachers poking fun at our attempts to learn Cree. More than once I left red-faced after being coaxed to practice my newly learned Cree with Matilda, our home-school coordinator. I would discover by her shocked reaction that I had indeed not asked her about her health or the weather. What made the students reaction to me and schooling all the more unbelievable was their daily living conditions and regimen before school. Oxford House in 1977 can best be described as Canadians, in fact the first Canadians, living in third world conditions in a hostile climate. This is not hyperbole, the conditions were third world. No running water or sewage, no central heating, communicable diseases, expensive and unreliable links to the outside world, no doctors and the list of “no’s” continues. I learned it could take one of my neighbours the full day to do her wash as she carried two buckets of water on a yoke on her back, up the hill from the frozen lake to heat on her wood stove. She had to first chop through the ice that had frozen over the family “water hole” on Oxford Lake, oftentimes in the dead of winter in -40C weather. The wood which she heated her home with, I learned, needed to be 20 cords and was chopped in the summer, many kilometers from home. The wood was rafted down Oxford Lake in the early fall, which like the geese heading south, was a sure sign of winter on the way. In those days the wood could only be chopped on previously burned out areas as to not deforest the areas around the community. A community practicing sustainable forest management before the term was being used.
Had conditions improved in thirty years? Yes! Would Canadians in the south live like this? No! We sit in cities, watching television, horrified at the conditions in Appawapiskat and think how is this possible. What is not seen on the National News are the scores of other communities like Appawapiskat spread throughout the north. More from Oxford House and other areas to follow.