All the lost boys and girls

As a teacher in Kashechewa­n, the au­thor’s ide­al­ized view of na­tive com­mu­ni­ties was be­set by a class­room of un­con­trol­lable chil­dren, heirs to gen­er­a­tions of ne­glect and a dy­ing cul­ture

National Post (Latest Edition) - - N E W S - BY LAU­RIE GOUGH

In re­cent days, the Cana­dian me­dia has fo­cused its col­lec­tive gaze on Kashechewa­n, the tiny na­tive com­mu­nity on the shores of James Bay in On­tario. Much has been made of the town’s con­tam­i­nated wa­ter, which has sick­ened hun­dreds of res­i­dents and forced many to be evac­u­ated. But hav­ing lived and worked in Kashechewa­n, I can re­port that wa­ter prob­lems are just the tip of the ice­berg. In al­most ev­ery re­spect, Kashechewa­n is a very sick place.

I am a teacher, a grad­u­ate of Nipiss­ing Teach­ers’ Col­lege in North Bay, Ont., where I took a spe­cial­iza­tion in na­tive ed­u­ca­tion. I chose Nipiss­ing be­cause I wanted to teach in a dif­fer­ent cul­ture than my own and be­cause I’d al­ways had an in­ter­est in na­tive peo­ple and their his­tory. But noth­ing I learned at Nipiss­ing could pre­pare me for the re­al­i­ties of teach­ing na­tives on an im­pov­er­ished re­serve.

My ex­pe­ri­ence in Kashechewa­n gen­er­ated a com­plete un­rav­el­ling of al­most ev­ery­thing I be­lieved. Un­til then, I ro­man­ti­cized Third World and na­tive cul­tures. Un­fairly, I put those peo­ple on a pedestal, some­how ex­pect­ing them to be wiser than peo­ple from my own cul­ture, more con­nected to the land, per­haps even pos­sess­ing an an­cient knowl­edge that our cul­ture had lost eons ago.

When Kashechewa­n’s band-run school of­fered me a job, I was thrilled, even though the job in­ter­view should have made me ner­vous. A man on the hir­ing com­mit­tee asked me only one ques­tion: “What would you do if a kid in your class set some­thing on fire?”

That first morn­ing, I had ev­ery­thing pre­pared. I was go­ing to have the chil­dren make name tags out of coloured pa­per in the shapes of var­i­ous lo­cal an­i­mals — moose, geese, fish. On their desks I ar­ranged crayons, glue, pa­per and scis­sors.

“ Be firm but kind,” I kept telling my­self, as if I were the teacher on Lit­tle House on the Prairie, and an obe­di­ent group of timid chil­dren were about to en­ter the room. As I waited for 9 a. m., I looked over the list of names again: Elka­nah, Zachariah, Malachai, Shem, Sue-He­len, BettyAnn and Verna. How strange, I thought, this mix of bib­li­cal boys’ names and al­lAmer­i­can ’50s girls’ names on a fly-in, sub- Arc­tic re­serve as far away from Is­rael and ap­ple pie as one could get.

The bell rang, and my heart thud­ded as I rushed out to greet my new stu­dents. They weren’t shy at all and looked me squarely in the eye. Later, I asked an­other teacher why some of my Third Grade stu­dents were so big. She told me some were 11 years old and had never been to school be­fore.

The kids be­gan bom­bard­ing me with ques­tions — “ What your name?” “ Why you wear that?” and let me know where I stood — “Me hate school” and “Me go inside now.” Be­fore I could stop them, a storm of kids charged inside with­out me, shriek­ing, run­ning, shov­ing and punch­ing each other in the head.

Let me re­late some high­lights of that first morn­ing: Dead an­i­mals were thrown around the class­room — mice, spar­rows, small rats. At one point, some­thing I thought was the tail of a mink tor­pe­doed to­ward me. When the rusty­coloured ob­ject landed on my desk, I looked down in hor­ror at the braid of my hair. I reached up to feel my newly cropped hair­style. Some­how, dur­ing the chaos, one of the kids had put his or her scis­sors to use. The cur­tains were torn down and used as a gi­ant ham­mock. Books were cut up, scrib­bled upon and chewed. Noth­ing I did to try to pre­vent any of this had any ef­fect. I was a nonen­tity. Al­ready I’d aged five years and lost my voice. My hands were shak­ing. It was 10 a.m. I’d “get used to it,” the other teach­ers told me.

The other teach­ers were wrong. I never got used to it. It never got bet­ter. But at least I had the ad­van­tage of know­ing that if I re­ally wanted to I could es­cape that sad lit­tle ice vil­lage and join my own cul­ture again. Th­ese chil­dren and their par­ents were caught in a no-man’s land, lost be­tween two worlds — one for­eign, the other go­ing ex­tinct.

As time went by, I re­al­ized that very lit­tle na­tive cul­ture re­mains to­day in sub-Arc­tic Canada. Once, small bands of no­madic Cree roamed the ter­ri­tory, hunt­ing, fish­ing and gath­er­ing. To­day, most live in vil­lages year-round in prefab houses, un­em­ployed, on wel­fare and get­ting their highly pro­cessed food at the Hud­son’s Bay store. The vast quan­ti­ties of sugar con­sumed daily by the kids is ev­i­dent in their rot­ting teeth. Here and there, some of the old ways still ex­ist: Twice a year, school is shut down for a week-long goose hunt. ( The chil­dren were ex­cel­lent goose call­ers, as they demon­strated daily in class.) But oth­er­wise, it’s sim­ply a squalid im­i­ta­tion of the white man’s world.

I was as­tounded by the dis­ci­pline prob­lems in the school — un­til I ob­served the cause: Th­ese chil­dren’s lives weren’t struc­tured in the way of most chil­dren’s lives in the south. Chil­dren are rarely told what to do or not to do. They may sleep at a dif­fer­ent house ev­ery night. Meals are rarely eaten to­gether as a fam­ily. When I would ask the kids what they had for lunch, Mars bars, Coke and potato chips were the usual replies.

Television, it seemed to me, was the main cul­prit in de­stroy­ing what lit­tle the peo­ple had left of their cul­ture. Within a year of the first TV’s ar­rival in the vil­lage in the late 1980s, the nurses told me, chil­dren be­gan to fight reg­u­larly and swear at the teach­ers — be­hav­iour that had pre­vi­ously been rare. No longer were they con­tent with their homemade toys; they wanted plas­tic guns in­stead.

In the times when the Cree em­braced a tra­di­tional hunter-gath­erer lifestyle, their an­ces­tors’ par­ent­ing meth­ods would have worked. Al­low­ing chil­dren to roam freely with­out rules helps them de­velop use­ful sur­vival skills. But now that the peo­ple no longer hunt and gather to sur­vive, this child-rear­ing method no longer works. Chil­dren typ­i­cally be­come de­pressed and hos­tile by their early teens. The anger lasts into adult­hood, where it’s of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by ha­tred to­ward all out­siders. Teach­ers would some­times be pelted with rocks and snow­balls as we walked down the road. Across the river, some­one had hung the fe­male prin­ci­pal’s dog by a noose so it dan­gled dead on her front porch when she stepped out to work one morn­ing.

Most par­ents were not the least bit in­ter­ested in en­cour­ag­ing ed­u­ca­tion or read­ing to their chil­dren. One rea­son, I had to re­mind my­self, was that up un­til the 1960s, gen­er­a­tions of par­ents had been taken away to res­i­den­tial schools at early ages. No won­der many of th­ese adults had few par­ent­ing skills: They’d never had the chance to learn such skills from their own par­ents.

It was also ev­i­dent that the very few who did man­age to get away from the re­serve to com­plete their ed­u­ca­tions rarely re­turned. This was un­der­stand­able — but it meant the com­mu­nity had few ed­u­cated, pos­i­tive role mod­els.

I dreaded go­ing to work ev­ery day. The male prin­ci­pal of the school seemed to have per­ma­nently shut him­self up in his of­fice, even though most of the classes, mine es­pe­cially, were com­pletely out of con­trol. Even among a prob­lem school, my class stood out as es­pe­cially bad. Twenty of my 29 stu­dents were boys. Ev­ery day in class, th­ese boys per­formed wrestling ma­noeu­vres on each other, which usu­ally ended with a pile-up of all 20. The fat­test boy, who weighed more than I did, waited to jump on at the end as he roared out an at­tack call. Not a day passed when I didn’t see blood.

The day af­ter Hal­loween, all the kids brought bags of candy to school, and one chubby girl ate so much that she defe­cated right there in the class­room. She was so en­raged when the boys teased her about it that she reached into her un­der­wear to re­move the of­fend­ing rank mass and be­gan throw­ing it around the room. I dis­tinctly re­call the con­sid­er­ably large con­tents of her bow­els splat­ter­ing on the black­board — way too close to where I was stand­ing. All I could do was yell, “Hit the deck!” to warn the oth­ers, then hide un­der a desk my­self. I fig­ure that a kid who hurls her own fe­ces at other chil­dren inside a class­room might be par­tic­i­pat­ing in an ac­tiv­ity that even the worst prob­lem kids in in­ner-city schools would con­sider un­seemly.

Ef­forts to con­nect with the chil­dren through their cul­ture pro­duced dead ends. One day I tried some na­tive drum­ming in my class. Some of the kids brought in drums, and we also made a few. Days later, a group of na­tive el­ders came to tell me to stop the drum­ming be­cause they didn’t want “evil In­dian ways against Je­sus.”

Af­ter three months, I be­gan wak­ing up with headaches and dark cir­cles un­der my eyes. One day in class, I think it was the day when the kids had stolen my house keys — they reg­u­larly stole things, but I re­ally needed those keys — I felt so de­feated and ex­hausted that some­thing in me sim­ply gave up. I sat at my desk and watched bleary-eyed as they whirled around the room like dervishes, de­stroyed ev­ery re­main­ing book and sprayed glue into each other’s faces. I couldn’t fight it any­more. In one last­ditch ef­fort, I in­vited the par­ents into my class to help me, but none of them showed up.

When I left the job at Christ­mas, I was a dif­fer­ent per­son. A few days af­ter I re­turned to my home­town of Guelph, Ont., a wo­man I knew who saw me on the street looked at me aghast and asked what had hap­pened, as if I was suf­fer­ing from some in­cur­able wast­ing dis­ease. Other than my phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance, some­thing else in me had changed. No longer was I a bright-eyed ide­al­ist yearn­ing to live in a teepee and voice the virtues of na­tive cul­ture. I’d lost some­thing es­sen­tial on the re­serve, per­haps faith in hu­mankind.

I had gone to Kashechewa­n naively look­ing for a cul­ture that no longer ex­ists. In­stead, I found abuse ev­ery­where — of chil­dren, women, an­i­mals and even the land it­self, sup­pos­edly the sub­ject of so much cul­tural ven­er­a­tion. On the re­serve, open sewage was emp­tied into the streams; garbage was thrown all over the place; and ev­ery year, on Dead Dog Day, stray dogs were shot and thrown into the river, turn­ing the wa­ter an alarm­ing, bril­liant red.

I have no idea what the an­swers are. But I do know I came away with the feel­ing that some­where along the line, a great in­jus­tice had been done to those kids. In time, they will turn into equally dys­func­tional adults, never hav­ing had the chance to suc­ceed and thrive in a healthy com­mu­nity. ❚ Au­thor Lau­rie Gough’s next book,

Kiss the Sun­set Pig: An Amer­i­can Road Trip with Ex­otic De­tours, comes out next spring with Pen­guin Canada. She has no plans to re­turn to Kashechewa­n.


A child plays dur­ing the re­cent evac­u­a­tion of Kashechewa­n. Au­thor Lau­rie Gough, be­low, says the chil­dren of the vil­lage have no struc­ture in their lives — a child- rear­ing method that may have made sense for their an­ces­tors but cre­ates only chaos to­day.

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