When four youth in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation in northern Ontario said they wanted to invite Canadians to visit their remote community for a vacation, many people didn't take them seriously. 

“There were people who said it’s impossible,” said Leona Matthews, one of the youth organizers. "They said, ‘They’re just youth, they don’t do anything.’ But we worked really hard and got it done."

They wanted to send an open invitation for average Canadians to spend five days in their community to help build bridges across culture and get a better sense of what life on a remote reserve is like.

The original goal was to invite 25 Canadians to come into the reserve north of Thunder Bay —  but 43 Canadians answered the call.

The group flew into the community on July 17, 2013 to spend five days and four nights in KI, also known as Big Trout Lake.

“I didn’t think this was going to blow up like this,” said Justin Beardy during the event.

“It snowballed— totally exceeding my expectations.”

The visitors stayed with local families and experienced first-hand life in an isolated First Nations community.

They toured homes to get a sense of the housing conditions, and learned about substance abuse and unemployment issues. During an open forum with the chief and council, they learned about the frustrations of trying to work with what one visitor called a “paternalistic” federal government.

K I first nation housing

Visitors to (KI) First Nation toured homes to get a sense of the housing conditions, and learned about substance abuse and unemployment issues. (Lenny Carpenter)

But they also experienced the Ojicree people’s traditional activities such as fishing, canoeing and medicine picking. They ate traditional meals of geese, moose, fish and caribou prepared by local elders. And they learned how tight-knit and resilient a community of 1,300 can be.

Peter Love, a part-time lawyer and member of the Toronto Rotary Club, said most Canadians know little about aboriginal history and their perspective.

“We’re terribly ignorant,” he said. “But this [KI trip] is the process of learning.”

Connections were made, friendships formed, and cultural gaps bridged.

The trip was considered a success, and the First Nation is extending the invite again this year. The cost for the all-inclusive trip ticket is $2,900 plus tax. Up to 50 visitors can be accommodated. 

Community featured in 2010 documentary

The program’s inspiration can be traced back to young Ottawa filmmaker Andrée Cazabon's arrival in KI in 2008.

Cazabon had heard about eight children in the community were orphaned after their mother and stepfather committed suicide just over a month apart. Her own experiences in foster care and film-making experience inspired her to help.

Andrée Cazabon KI First Nation

Andrée Cazabon filming at the community hall on K.I. First Nation in 2007. (Facebook)

When she arrived to produce a documentary on the socio-economic issues within the community, Cazabon met with some reticence — despite having the blessing of the chief and council.

“The first thought was anger. My nephews and nieces had been through a lot — and now somebody was filming them and asking them questions,” resident Tina Sainnawap said after the film’s premiere. “I felt like she was going to hurt my nieces and nephews.”

But when Cazabon explained her reasons for filming, and made a commitment to continue to work with the community for 10 years, many relented.

“As an individual, I was responsible to make a commitment to the community,” said Cazabon, who is a Francophone-Ontarian. “I would not make another film until we made a difference.”

The documentary 3rd World Canada premiered in 2010. Cazabon then took the film on several tours in various cities in Ontario.

'Youth engagement is not something done overnight and you need people to lead with their voices.' - Andrée Cazabon​

Youth from the community — including some of the film’s subjects — came along to speak at the screenings. which proved to be a challenge.

At the outset, “You’d be lucky to get a sentence out of them,” Cazabon said.

But as the tours progressed, the youth grew more comfortable.

“It took two years,” Cazabon said. “Youth engagement is not something done overnight and you need people to lead with their voices.”

Through the tours, 3rd World Canada evolved from a film into the KI exchange project.

Idle No More movement inspired youth

In January, 2013, at the height of the Idle No More movement, Cazabon visited KI again. She wanted to meet with youth, and brainstorm ideas and possibilities on what to do next to bridge those cultural gaps.

Inviting Canadians to spend a week in the community was one of them.

Cazabon insisted the youth needed to spearhead the initiative in order for it to be a success.

Beardy and Karyn Paishk were involved from the start. They had previously helped organize local events related to Idle No More. Matthews and Faith McKay also joined to help organize.

KI First Nation

Visitors also experienced the Ojicree people’s traditional activities such as fishing, canoeing and games. (Lenny Carpenter)

Being a grassroots initiative, the project lacked major funding. So the youth fundraised and sought sponsors in the north while Cazabon covered the south. Wasaya Airways, an Aboriginally-owned airline, came on board, while the Toronto Rotary Club, which hosted screenings during the tours, also agreed to sponsor the event.

The whole initiative was a “scary project,” for the youth, Cazabon said.

“They learned the best way to erase the fear is lean on each other.”

There were times the youth thought the event might never happen.

“We almost gave up but we always kept pushing each other,” Matthews said. “We were a great team.”

“I’m so proud to be from here, KI. This is our home,” Paishk said on the last night of the event. She noted the laughter around the community grounds. “You see this? This is the spirit of KI, and I don’t think it’ll ever die.”

This story produced as part of Journalists for Human Rights’s Northern Ontario Initiative.

Apply to visit KI First Nation this summer.