Residents of Big Trout Lake, a fly-in reserve 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., want ordinary Canadians to see the good and bad of their lives.
Faith McKay stood near the gravel landing strip outside her remote Ontario reserve, watching the dark spot in the northern sky grow into a turboprop plane, fast approaching.
As perfect strangers soon filed onto the makeshift tarmac that calm June day — about to spend the better part of a week in her small, fly-in reserve 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay — she felt a deep sense of accomplishment.
She was also terrified.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God, what did we do?’ ” McKay, 25, said with a chuckle. “They just kept coming off the plane.”
What began as a simple but far-fetched idea dreamt up by some of the reserve’s young adults — ‘Why don’t we invite Canadians into our community?’— had become the reality of nearly four dozen people from across the country descending on Big Trout Lake, or in Oji-Cree, Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug.
The visit was borne of Idle No More, a protest movement to raise awareness for First Nations issues, including rampant poverty, youth suicide and abuse of treaty rights, ultimately prompting a hunger strike by Theresa Spence, chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation.
McKay, alongside three other young adults in the community, wanted so-called “ordinary Canadians” to continue learning about First Nations issues, but also to understand the benefits of life on the reserve.
The group was also aiming to break stereotypes, said McKay, “such as being seen as just alcoholics, drug addicts, lazy, or as living off the government.”
With the help of the Rotary Club of Toronto and Engineers Without Borders, as well as Ottawa filmmaker Andrée Cazabon — whose documentary Third World Canada showcased the reserve’s deplorable living conditions and high suicide rates — McKay and three other young adults began a months-long planning process for what they call a “northern reconciliation exchange.”
They found homes in the community to billet guests, planned activities such as fishing and swimming, organized communal traditional meals and planned tours of important centres.
Perhaps hardest of all, they convinced the reserve to open up to people they feared might judge them.
“Within our community, we had doubters,” McKay said. “They thought ordinary Canadians were coming up here to judge us, and they felt ashamed of the living conditions, everything.”
“But as the days wore on, it was nothing like that.”
The visit went so well, spawning both mutual understanding and friendship, that the community is extending an invitation to Canadians this summer.
As many as 50 people can make the trip to “KI,” slated for Aug. 1-7 and costing an estimated $2,900 per person, an amount covering room, board, transportation and activities. This year’s sponsors also include the Trillium Foundation, The Michaëlle Jean Foundation and Nipissing University.
Investment manager John Andras is one of several members of Toronto’s Rotary Club who made the trip last year, and says it was “life changing.”
“We ate together, visitors and community members alike, feasting on moose tongue, caribou, wild goose and lake trout. We laughed, played, sang and rejoiced in our shared humanity,” he wrote in a piece reflecting on the experience.
Fatih Yegul, executive vice-president of the Intercultural Dialogue Institute and another KI visitor last summer, said everyone was a little tentative in the first few days, hesitant about how to get to know one another.
But after a few meals together and some tours through the reserve, including the school and the local health centre, the residents and visitors grew comfortable.
“We really started to mix, and after some time, we started to become friends,” Yegul said.
One of the experiences that stayed with him was an activity illustrating a key problem in the treaty signings: language barriers that meant First Nations people misunderstood the agreements with the government of Canada. Yegul said the group was asked to sign an agreement written in Ojibway, which few in the group spoke.
“It was really striking,” he said.
Janet MacDougall made the trek after seeing a Star article last year telling people about the trip. A former volunteer with Simcoe County Children’s Aid Society, she was interested in seeing first-hand the living conditions similar to those many of the children she helped would have experienced.
Though she witnessed many of the struggles the community faces, including a dramatic housing shortage, lack of employment, poverty and more, she also gained an appreciation for the sense of community on the reserve and its connection to nature.
She particularly enjoyed living with a local couple and their three kids. The family opened up to her and welcomed her like one of their own, she said.
“It was life changing, it really was,” she said. “I’m so glad that I went.”