Tuesday, September 30, 2014

For Serenity and Neesh

Like crimson flames the leaves are turning the page on summer, but the memories continue to glow; embers that won't die.

On our last day with the children of Mish we drove them the 8 kilometers from the village and through the cemetery to the beach one last time; an end of the week celebration tinged with sadness at what that meant. 

The children ran from our cars, not to the beach at first, but to visit the small white wooden crosses marking graves, looking for those of people they knew, pointing them out to one another. Death seems an all too frequent a visitor to the families of Mish. 

"My auntie's here; she burned," said one little girl. Her tone was as matter of fact as if burning is as normal a cause of death as old age. But then, on the reserve, tragically, it is. Buildings burn often and the people in them die.
Down on the beach the first children to have arrived were already shrieking with joy. Their laughter carried up to the hilltop where I stood, at a grave from which a young man's face smiled from a photo: Gary "Neesh" Fox; he should have been the promise of the future for his community--"Top Student Phys Ed," "Most Improved Social Sciences." He died at 21 in a fire.

My heart broke and I am angry at the level of acceptance that this happens. This is not okay. It is shameful that in our proud country, people have no choice but to live in flimsy inadequate housing in which they struggle to keep warm in the bitter cold of winter. 

 In Missabay Community School, our friend, Isaiah Roundhead, pointed out one of the banners hanging among the other richly coloured hand sewn flags and banners representing other First Nations or events. This one, a single feather, he said quietly, was made in memory of Serenity. 

Last year Serenity would have been one of the children at the beach. She joined in the children's program we ran for a week. And she was one of four occupants who died when the house they were in burned down in the early hours of one morning this past February.  We saw the empty piece of land where their house used to stand.

John Kiedrowski wrote in an article in the National Post last January, that: 
The fire incidence rate is 2.4 times greater per capita than that for the rest of Canada, the fire damage per unit 2.1 times greater, the fire injury rate 2.5 times greater, and the death rate 10.4 times greater.
There are many underlying reasons for this, including substance abuse, lack of adequate housing and lack of emergency services, to name a few. 

Listen HERE to Chief Connie Gray-MacKay, on CBC Radio, February 18, 2014, responding to the tragedy in which Serenity died, and calling upon the Federal Government to address the challenges faced in making First Nations communities safe places to live for their children and grandchildren.

Serenity and Neesh, this is written so that you will be known beyond Mishkeegogamang and so that people will know of the challenges and the help that is needed for them to be overcome. 

Your lives were precious. You had promise and hope. You are not forgotten.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Prayer

In the continuing story of our week long adventure in Mish, this story of the evening after our outing to the beach on Thursday, is from Susan Stewart. 

When Paul mentioned that he was disappointed that Belinda wasn’t going to be at the community center that night to take photos, I completely understood her position.  The night before, I felt just like I suspected she felt now - like I had “hit the wall”. 

Everyone else had headed over to the community barbecue and the dance that followed it, but though my spirit was willing, my body told me in no uncertain terms, “there’s absolutely no way you’re going anywhere tonight where there are people”.  My muscles were aching and my brain was fried – to a crisp. I felt like I couldn’t answer one more question, make one more decision, or interact with one more person.  So I stayed back while everyone else went to the dance, knowing I was probably missing something very significant, and quite possibly even “wonderful” but I also knew that after a solid week of no more than 4 hours of sleep per night, I just had to stop and get myself re-centred.   I thought I would be napping, but instead, I found myself just relishing in being “alone”.  I desperately needed that time on Wednesday evening, and I could understand perfectly that Belinda needed it tonight.  It was her turn to “hit the wall” and say “no, I want to, but I just can’t”.

Paul, Jamie, and AJ had gone ahead with the truck to unload and set out the many donations that had been collected and set aside by the church back home.  Christy had gone with them too, with the keyboard, so that she could play and sing while people browsed and sorted and picked up items that they could use and which in the far north are shockingly expensive – items which we might consider staples are simply out of reach even for someone with a decent income up there.  It’s difficult to imagine how people on a limited income can make it at all. As soon as the kitchen was tidied after supper, the rest of us followed the truck to the Community Centre. 

By the time we arrived, there was already one pickup truck loaded up to capacity and pulling out of the parking lot which was abuzz with activity.   Although we were quite late by that time, there was still lots of “shopping” going on, as the contents of the truck had been laid out on the outdoor stage and people were going through boxes looking for items they could use and even a few treasures.  

Sharon pitched in and started unpacking boxes and helping people find the right sizes.  Jamie picked up some men’s ties and took them over to a man who had tried on a beautiful men’s suit and need the finishing touch.  Kids were flying by and threading their way in and out around the adults on the roller blades.  Almost everyone seemed to have a bag of chips or crackers that had come off the truck.  It felt like a party.  I headed toward the keyboard where Christy was playing, snapping a few photos and saying hello to some of the people I had come to know in our few days thereA, and of course the kids...
I felt a tug on my sleeve and looked down into  Johnny’s shining black eyes.  They were so hopeful, so imploring, with not a hint of greed.  Just hope. 

“Are there any more roller skates?”

My heart snapped in two right there.  I knew the roller blades would have been the first thing to go. And yet I wanted more than anything in the world in that moment to meet the desire of that little boy’s heart.  His request was so quiet, so humble.  There was no sense of demand in his voice, no hint of entitlement.  Just that heart-wrenching “hope”!

All I could think of was to try and comfort him in his disappointment.  “I’m so sorry Johnny!  I think the skates are all gone, but you know what?  I will pray and ask God to send you some skates.  He will hear our prayers and I’m SURE he’ll send you some skates.  Maybe Paul can bring them up next time he brings a truck.”  I made a mental note to try not to forget to go skate shopping when I got home.  I HAD to make sure that someone answered that kid’s prayer!

As I threaded my way through the crowd and the boxes toward Christy, I saw Belinda’s friend Eva there with her daughter looking for cloth to make blankets.  There were boxes of shoes and men’s suits and so many other good things that would help people through a long cold winter.  One of the first things to go was the cases of Habitant pea soup, and after seeing the price of basic food in the only grocery store in Pickle Lake, you could certainly understand why such a staple would be in high demand.

I finally reached Christy’s side and joined in the song she was singing…
“ At the cross I bow my knee
where your blood was shed for me there’s no greater love than this 
You have overcome the grave
Your glory fills the highest placeWhat can separate me now…”

Hearing her sing of God’s love for all of us in that circumstance was one of those poignant moments which will stay with me a very long time.  It was what “this” was all about-  why we were “here” in Mish.  Because God loves us – every one.  We were giving a little of our time and some of our excess  in the south, but there in the north, we were getting so much back – in different ways perhaps, but we were certainly on the receiving end.   God showed all of us riches there  that we had known nothing of in some of the lessons learned from the hearts who touched ours in Mish. 

Slowly the loaded pickups left the parking lot one by one, and the crowd gradually diminished.  We began to pack up the music equipment and speakers, and started to pile up boxes and clean up.   Christy and I loaded the keyboard into the back of my vehicle and then we headed back to clean up some more stuff.   We passed a table that had been laid out with goods, and I looked down.  I couldn’t believe my eyes…

A pair of roller blades!!!  But they couldn’t be the right size – could they?  And where was Johnny?  Even if these skates fit him, I’d never find him now.   I bent over to scoop them up.  I would set them aside and maybe – hopefully – he would be there for the children’s activities tomorrow.   “They’re probably too big,” I thought, but I figured that at the worst, he could grow into them.

I stood up with the skates and started to tell Christy the story of Johnny’s request.  As we walked and talked, there was Johnny right in front of us.  For the second time in two minutes, I couldn’t believe my eyes! 

“Johnny!”  I called, holding up my prize.  “Look!  God heard your prayer!  Skates!”  I got ready to apologize to those shining eyes because surely they couldn’t be the right size, but before I had a chance, he was down on the pavement and with Christy’s help, was strapping on his answer to prayer.  His smile was wide and, oh, did those eyes sparkle.  But I’m sure he didn’t feel half the joy I did in that moment.  And can you believe it? They fit!!! 

We finished packing up and drove back to the school with tired but happy hearts.  I couldn’t wait to tell the story to Belinda, who listened with eyes as shiny as Johnny’s. 

The next morning I found the skates on the stairs to the stage inside the Community Centre.  At first I was surprised, but as I thought it through, I realized that this was no sign of carelessness.  Rather it was evidence of one of the lessons we had learned, one of those aforementioned gifts we had been given during our time in Mish.  Possessions in this culture seem like they are loosely held, even seemingly coveted treasures and answers to prayer like Johnny’s skates had been.  Much like the boat left behind “in the water” at the beach earlier that day, and which Belinda told us about in a previous post, after a little boy had the joy of playing with those skates for a whole summer’s evening they were left behind to be discovered by another child – whose treasure they would be for another day.  Who knows how many children will end up having the use of those skates before winter’s cold creeps in and the snow falls and those roller blades will no longer be of any use.  But seeing how much they were enjoyed during the short time we were there, I’m still going skate shopping before next summer.  J

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Dogs of Mish

The dogs of Mish live on the fringes of the community, or if lucky, on a porch or under a deck.

They know their place, and it is generally not inside a house.

Sometimes we passed a puppy walking along the road at his master's heel without a leash, obviously a loved pet, but the pampered life of many pets in the south, is very different to that of the dogs of the north.

They exist like a separate tribe among the humans and are ever present. At lunch time, when Joyce and I arrived with sandwiches, spaghetti, or macaroni cheese, they circled hopefully, willing the food out of the children's hands, and if dangling at all, it would be gone. It was impossible to harden our hearts though, towards these poor beasts, so many of them sadly neglected.

There was Princess, who had evidently recently had puppies, and King who was a male version of Princess, both of them the colour of pale sand with pointy ears and curly tails. There was a big black dog, with intelligent eyes and a slash down his side that seemed to be some kind of wound or skin problem. He seemed to be the Alpha dog, but his pitiful appearance won my sympathy vote.
Photo by Susan Stewart

In spite of their hunger, they were sometimes surprisingly careful with the food they "acquired." I saw Princess trot away stealthily and vanish into the trees with a grilled cheese sandwich, instead of gobbling it on the spot. I wondered if she was taking it to her puppies, but more likely she was taking it where it would not be swiped away from her. And Tori saw a dog take some small crackers and bury them in the ground.

At the school we had visits from the two dogs that belonged to Marita, the school custodian, and lived beneath her porch. One was a tiny tan puppy, and the other was a brown and white St. Bernard, named Butch. He was shaggy and big, and drooly and he reminded me of the powerful dogs in the story of the Tinderbox, one of the fairy tales of my childhood. Tori fell in love with all of them.

We had been home just a few days when I saw a post on Facebook written by Kendra, Marita's daughter, about her two nephews, Ishmael and Salvator. She wrote that they had been fishing all day long until in the evening when they finally caught one fish. They came running up the hill with the fish, jolly and happy; until Butch ("their beastly dog," said Kendra,) came from behind and stole the fish. They chased him down but couldn't catch him. And they had been so happy...

But what is a dog to do when a fish is dangled so tantalizingly before his nose?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Beach, Two Boys, and a Boat

It felt like recess. A day off from work. The first day of summer vacation

It was Thursday in Mish, and we were cruising! Actually we were going to the beach. The BEACH!!! With dozens of children!

We had been blessed with extraordinarily wonderful weather all week. Twenty nine degrees Celsius was the average temperature, with blue and sunny skies. 

Our team had kept the children busy with many fun activities all week, but the beach felt like a special treat as the week was winding towards the end.

Most of the children just came in the clothes they had put on in the morning. A few had brought bathing trunks and towels. 

One little boy's mom was there to see him off and she told me he couldn't swim. His name was Charlie, and I promised her that I would not let him out of my sight. 

The beach was 8 kilometers out of Mish, and accessed by way of a winding road that branched off from the main road and ran through the community cemetery. 

Several carloads of kids and adults had already arrived ahead of me. I found the steep and narrow, sandy path down to the beach through a break in the bushes.
Down below the beach and the sparkling lake were filled with children and adults at play; shouts and laughter floated up to greet me as I slid my way down.

I watched over Charlie, and another smaller boy named Mark, who arrived tightly clutching a little boat with a Lego man inside it, which I persuaded him to let me hold for safekeeping.

"Can I play with the boat?" Charlie asked.

"You'll have to ask Mark," I said, "It's his boat."

Charlie turned to Mark, "Can I play with your boat?"

"Okay," Mark said.

And while on the rest of the beach an uproarious party went on, in our corner of the world, two boys played quietly and contentedly with a boat.

The Lego man eventually went back into the boat, a little later I noticed that Mark didn't have the boat anymore. "Where is the boat?" I asked.

"In the water," he said. The boat had been played with without any possessiveness. Now it was gone.  And no one was upset. 

The sun kissed our limbs with heat. We broke into the cooler of Freezies. All was well in our world of simple and profound joy.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

From Woman to Woman Across Time and Space

What is the connection between the Centennial Queen of Dufferin County; born on July 5, 1867; with an 84 year old Ojibway woman in Mish?

Sophia (Logan) Rayburn; who died at the age of 108; had a passion for quilting from childhood. And today some of her unfinished work and quilting pieces were passed on, through her great granddaughter, to me, and I and my friends will get them to Eva; the woman in Mish; who makes blankets from fabric scraps to sell.

What an exciting week I had when I followed through on a promise to Eva's daughter Mary, whom I had met in Mish. The promise was that when I got home I would gather some fabric and send a parcel to her. I just knew that among my friends, somebody would have some odds and ends of material that they were never going to use

So I put a call out to my Face book friends, telling them about Eva and asking for help. 

My friend Irene was first to respond with, "My sister Ann will donate a bunch...it's best she doesn't know she's "donating" them though, so let's just keep it a secret." :)

I am still shaking my head in amazement at the responses that came. Anita, one of my friends, is a member of a quilters' guild. She sent a message to her friends and an avalanche of replies came back from them, as well as my own friends.

One of Anita's friends, Lorraine, the great granddaughter of the Centennial Queen, had four boxes of fabric to contribute as she is moving. I made arrangements to go this morning, to her home in Orangeville and pick them up.

So with the morning sky still a petulant gray after a stormy night, I set out in my little black Honda Fit, with a sense of adventure; to meet a woman I didn't know, who was part of the answer to my prayer.

By the time I got to Orangeville, following my Google Maps directions to Lorraine's street, the sky was a fresh washed blue with white fluffy clouds scudding across it. Lorraine welcomed me and loaded me up with boxes of quilting pieces and sheets for backing and a beautiful almost finished quilt with squares her great grandmother Sophia had sewn onto squares cut from paper bags. Lorraine remembers as a little girl, that her job was to pick off the paper from the squares, and then her mother sewed them onto the fabric. Even now, Lorraine can remember some of the garments that the scraps had come from.

Four generations: Sophia is seated, with Lorraine on her knee.
I still plan to send Eva a parcel of fabric, but my friend Susan has seen a soft sided suitcase in a consignment store, that would be perfect to pack it in, and her husband Ron, an Ontario Land Surveyor who is working on behalf of some First Nations bands in the north will get it as far as Ignace when he travels there next. We will connect with our friend from Mish, Pastor Mervin, who visits Ignace; and when he is visiting he can pick up the suitcase of fabric.

I know there is a purpose for all of this fabric and wonder what it is. Perhaps Eva might be able to pass on her skills to the children of Mish as some of the elders do teach at the school.

Some times it feels like God sprinkles angel dust over a situation and today felt just like that.