Megan Blair works at a small hospital that serves the Cree Nation communities of Moose Factory, Attawapiskat (pictured), Moosonee, Fort Albany, Kashechewan and Peawanuck. Photo courtesy of Rosie Koostachin

Northern reserves suffer a poverty of spirit

By  Megan Blair, Catholic Register Special
  • December 8, 2011

MOOSE FACTORY, ONT. - Poverty. No clean water supply. No electricity. No heating. Lack of proper housing. Lack of education. Minimal health resources. Suffering. Hopelessness. Loud cries for help. And yet no one is listening. No one is paying attention. No one is showing care and compassion.

This may sound like a Third World, developing country, but, no, this is Canada. This is the Canada that so many people do not know exists and is ignored. Until recently, I was one of these people.

I am a registered nurse who has served in impoverished villages in Nigeria and the shantytowns surrounding the cities of Lima, Peru, and Guayaquil, Ecuador. I have experienced much poverty in my travels, but I have also experienced hope, courage and love. Although these people may seem to lack the basics, they have so much more. It is a poverty of material, not of spirit.

One year ago my spiritual journey led me to a place much closer to home, yet in many respects a place that seems a world away. Little did I know this would become the most challenging mission God had ever presented me.

I am currently living in Moose Factory, Ont., an island at the tip of James Bay. I work at a small hospital that serves the Cree Nation communities of Moose Factory, Attawapiskat, Moosonee, Fort Albany, Kashechewan and Peawanuck. It has been an adventure, to say the least. It has also challenged me in ways I could never have imagined.

The poverty is immense. But unlike the stops in my previous travels, it is not just a poverty of material things. It is a poverty of spirit. There is so much hopelessness and suffering. Here exists the devastation that results from a hurt so deep that only alcohol and drugs can numb it — at least for a little while. When sobriety returns in the morning, so does the pain, suffering and hopelessness.

The children of the Attawapiskat Reserve on the shores of James Bay in Northern Ontario are raised in abject poverty.

The children of the Attawapiskat Reserve on the shores of James Bay in Northern Ontario are raised in abject poverty.

Photo courtesy of Catholic Missions In Canada

Suicide rates are high, reaching epidemic proportions among native youth. The statistics are alarming but we seem to sweep them under the carpet, along with Canada’s other denials and shames.

I have witnessed much suffering, but my heart aches most for the youth. I have witnessed youth as young as 12 numb their pain with alcohol and drugs, violence and sex. Sometimes, after these binges, they attempt suicide, either by drug overdose or hanging, sometimes successfully, others not. Time and again in the emergency department I find myself sitting beside the ones who lived. As we monitor them and try to sober them up, I pray that their heart and other organs do not shut down. I pray that although the sadness and hopelessness and hurt is so deep, God will smack some sense into them and He will take their hurt upon Himself and hold them in a loving embrace.

These young victims cry out: a cry for help, a cry for attention, a cry for someone to care; but mostly a cry for something to live for. I had an 18 year old tell me after his sixth suicide attempt that he did not actually want to take his life. But he was frustrated, angry and at his breaking point. He felt lost. And he did not know how to cope with the emotional and physical abuse and the raw deal life had dealt him.

In situations like this, it seems there are no words that can console and provide comfort. I don’t understand his reality, but I feel some of his pain. So instead of trying to find the words, I listen. Intently. And encourage him to recognize his potential. And then he admitted, after much silence, that he knows there is something bigger out there; he just hadn’t found it yet.

Right there, for a moment, a glimmer of hope for me. That showed me that God’s presence, although sometimes difficult to see, is there, is alive and is constantly bringing hope amid despair, light to the darkness and love to overcome such suffering.

There has been a lot of media attention on the community of Attawapiskat of late, so-called “breaking news” about the housing crisis. But this is not breaking news. This crisis has existed — and persisted — for decades. Yet only now is the silence being broken. People in this community and in many other places in Northern Canada are living in shacks that would shock even the people I have served in Africa and Peru.

These deplorable living conditions are unacceptable for any human, no matter where in the world they live. But they are more unacceptable in a rich, kind, wonderful country like Canada. We are better than this.

The need is big. But God is bigger. The amount of change that must occur seems impossible. But with God, all things are possible. The hurt these people are experiencing is deep and real. But God’s love has the power to heal all their wounds and encourage their hearts in ways we can never imagine. So pray for the people of Attawapiskat and for the people living in similar situations around the world. Make yourselves aware of the injustices that are occurring in your own backyard. Instead of turning a blind eye, use your heart and voice to act as advocates for people who deserve so much more.

For those who want to help in a more tangible way, a group of health professionals at Weeneebayko General Hospital in Moose Factory has organized a warm-clothing drive. So if you have donations of warm clothing for adults and kids, insulated sleeping mats, warm blankets, heaters and even generators, they would be much appreciated. Financial donations can be made through the Canadian Red Cross.

(Blair is a registered nurse in Moose Factory, Ont.)

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