I know how lucky I am, but every once in a while that fact is brought sharply into focus — never more so than on this assignment.
We were heading into northern Ontario to meet with Darlene Necan, a homeless native woman who was trying to help herself be “not homeless” as she put it.
- First Nations woman told to stop building her own house
- Homeless First Nation woman builds her own cabin
- Homeless woman charged for building her own home
We left Dryden, Ont., at eight in the morning, heading up past Sioux Lookout on ice-covered roads through the bush. There were long stretches of silver birch and frozen bog, lakes still unfrozen, the condensed vapour crystallizing as it rose above the water. It felt like –30 with the wind chill.
On the way out of town, we pulled into a sandwich shop. I bought a half dozen sandwiches, thinking there would be nowhere to eat up there, and with hours and hours ahead of us, you never know.
Four hours later, we arrived at Savant Lake, a place where the tracks cross the road. In summer and fall it is paradise for anglers and hunters. Now it was just cold, real cold for November.
There was no cellphone coverage. We started heading up side roads looking for someone to ask where Darlene might be. A young woman spotted us and comes out of a little cabin. “Darlene is in that house over there," she offered with a big friendly smile.
No mitts in freezing cold
Darlene agreed to take us across the road to a clearing where her parents’ home used to be, where her little shell of a home was under construction.
It was freezing. She had no mitts, no gloves. She and her sister came back on the train in the middle of the night. Darlene had been given a train ticket to Toronto, where people were raising money for her defence. She has been charged with breaches of the Public Lands Act and ordered to stop building a home on what she considers her family's traditional land.
They dragged her belongings to her friend’s house from where the train stopped, about a kilometre away. “Hard on my hands,” was all she said.
After filming outside, we went to her friend’s house to do a longer interview. As soon as the camera hit the heat, it fogged up, as it tends to do.
We sat there in the pleasant but sparse surroundings, waiting for the lens to clear.
Then I remembered the sandwiches. I said, “I have some sandwiches in the van. I would be happy to share them with you while we wait.” I had just enough for everyone.
I noticed that Darlene took a couple of bites, but that was all before she carefully wrapped up the sandwich again. I had devoured mine. “You're not hungry?”
“I eat slow,” she said, and did not eat any more.
We started the interview. She talked about how difficult it had been since her son took his own life and how she was trying to help others and to help herself. But she was clearly despondent and frustrated at her predicament.
“I still try to remain helpful, no matter what situation I am in. I will always look at other people’s situations before mine, and help them first,” she said. ”I help myself too, but I’m more focused on other people, helping them and making it comfortable for them to live."
'I don't eat every day'
Then she said, “I don’t eat every day. I sometimes eat every second day. That’s just because I don’t want to go to other people’s houses and eat, because I know they struggle to feed their families too … so having me as an extra mouth, no no, I won’t do that, I will try to stay away.”
The rest of her carefully wrapped sandwich sat on the table between us.
Inside I felt like an idiot. I realized the rest of that sandwich may be all there is for her today, maybe tomorrow.
I could feel mine in the pit of my stomach. I felt sick. I felt ashamed. We finished our shoot and she wished us well, thanked us even for coming and left us with a smile.
It was a long drive home. I will be seeing that carefully wrapped sandwich on that table for a long time.