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Joseph Boyden on building a future for Aboriginal youth

We asked Joseph Boyden, the Canada Reads-winning author of The Orenda, to write about a change taking place in his neighbourhood. Below, he writes about how taking Aboriginal youth back to the land is giving them new hope. 

"Building Something"
By Joseph Boyden

There’s a place in the wilderness of the northern lowlands, a paradise dotted by black spruce and poplar, tamarack and ash, the earth woven with rivers and pocked by muskeg. It’s true bush, about 220 kilometers north of Cochrane, Ontario, and about 90 kilometers south of Moosonee and its northern reserve cousin, Moose Factory.

This geography and these communities of James Bay, are a part of my heart. This place and these people, they drive my writing imagination and my sense of home.

In recent years, these communities, and others very similar to them right across Canada’s north, have been devastated by waves of young people taking their own lives. There are the theories: brutal socio-economic conditions, psycho-biological tendencies, the post-traumatic stress of a culture’s destruction. Ultimately, though, no one is quite sure why the rate is often 100 times higher than the Canadian average. All we know is that something desperately needs to be done.

So we’re doing something. 

My dear friends, William and Pamela Tozer of the Moose Cree First Nation, along with me and some others, are building a camp for kids there, where the Abitibi River meets another, much smaller river, the camp’s namesake, the Onakawana. 

There’s something very powerful in speaking and especially listening to elders around a fire in your own language, in learning how to catch a fish, to bead and sew moccasins, to make hand drums, to home smoke and tan a moose hide, to hunt and trap animals for their meat and fur.

I know when I first trekked into this wilderness and learned to hunt moose and caribou, to fish for pickerel and pike; it changed my life, my connection to the present as well as the past. We’re already witnessing a difference in these youth. To bring them back onto the land, to teach them about what their grandparents and great grandparents knew.

And we’re doing this; we’re making this change, despite often fighting against a frightening current in this country, one that rears its grotesque head in the opinion sections of every media outlet in this nation. We fight against the brutal current of those who don’t know us saying that we’re all lazy and dependent on handouts, that we’re backwards and lost, that we’re pathetic for wanting to live in the past, that we’re holding up economic and corporate advancement in our desire to protect and have faith in the land upon which we live.  

We’re building this camp despite that ugly current, and without ever asking the government for a single thing. But rather than despise all of those faceless and hateful voices that saturate the comments sections of newspapers across, I want to invite them up, let them participate if they like, let them see.

If you ever wish to reach our Camp Onakawana, simply drive to Cochrane, and then board the Polar Bear Express. Make sure to ask the conductor to stop the train at the mileage marker along the Onakawana River and then walk in on the trail the few kilometers to the camp.

What I’m helping to build is so special because it isn’t just something physical we’re creating. It’s something much bigger than that. There’s a change going on in these northern communities so dear to me.  

We are working hard to change despair into self-reliance, of changing that frightening feeling of being lost into always knowing how to find home, of changing the belief that there isn’t much of a future into seeing that the world is your oyster, or should I say, your netted sturgeon, your beaded moccasin, your moose tenderloin, your sweat lodge, your eagle feather, your round dance in the wilderness, surrounded by your friends.  

And what makes me especially happy is that this camp, Onakawana, won’t be the only one. It’s just the first in what will be camps for youth across Canada, where young people can get to learn and get to share, maybe get to find themselves a little bit. It’s a place where they are encouraged to simply become themselves.  

Joseph Boyden is the author of the bestsellers Three Day Road, which won the 2005 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, and Through Black Spruce, which landed the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize. His most recent book, The Orenda, was shortlisted for the 2013 Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction and won Canada Reads 2014. He divides his time between Northern Ontario and Louisiana, where he teaches writing at the University of New Orleans. 


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