Books·How I Wrote It

Alexandra Shimo spent months on the Kashechewan reserve. The experience left her with PTSD.

Alexandra Shimo documents her experience with the northern Ontario reserve in Invisible North.
Alexandra Shimo was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award for English-language non-fiction in 2014 as cowriter of Edmund Metatawabin's memoir Up Ghost River: A Chief’s Journey Through the Turbulent Waters of Native History. (Dundurn Press)

Invisible North tells the story of Kashechewan, a northern Ontario reserve that is plagued by poverty, suicide and food insecurity.  Journalist Alexandra Shimo took several extended trips to the community, confronting first-hand the tragic legacy of residential schools. In her own words, she describes how her experiences left her with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Beyond the five Ws

"I had been working as a journalist for a while, both as an editor at Maclean's and prior to that as a producer for the CBC. I found that with a lot of stories about First Nations, it was really hard to get any depth, partly because of linguistic and cultural barriers, but also because the challenge of distance. You'd have quite traditional coverage. The basics — the five Ws: who, what, where, when, why — would be covered, but I always had more questions that I felt needed to be answered.

"We hear about suicide clusters in these northern communities, but we don't realize that if you have a place with record high suicide rates, suicide doesn't just affect the community when there's a cluster. We were often told to look for anybody who might be acting strangely. Most of the kids were on suicide watch. You could see scars on kids' arms. If you're living down south, you think, 'Oh, there's a cluster. People will get help.' When there's no more media coverage, you think the problem's gone away, but you don't realize that when you have these communities with record high suicide rates, it's just a fact of life."

Letting in an outsider

"I'd never been on a troubled reserve and I think it's hard to prepare for something like that. Being an outsider, you've got to understand there's a bunch of issues. The first is that this particular community was next to two residential schools, both of which have been in the news a lot: Bishop Horden Memorial School and St. Anne's Residential School. St. Anne's Residential School is known as one of the worst in North America. It actually had an electric chair for the children, which I wrote about in Up Ghost River. They didn't feed the kids enough, so the kids were starving most of the time. They were given mouldy food or made to eat their own vomit. A lot of the pedophiles were known to bribe the kids using food. The other thing about Kashechewan and most of these communities is that people who ran the reserves until 1985 were actually Indian agents. They would fly into the reserve and make decisions about what would happen to people, almost always paying very little attention to the needs, desires and wishes of the communities themselves. That's the legacy of outsiders' contact in these reserves. So understandably people were nervous for me to come into this community and say 'I'm going to do this big story.'" 

Struggling with PTSD

"A lot of people said to me, 'It's going to be really jarring for you to come from a place where people are struggling to survive, to where you're just surrounded by wealth.' It was. I remember coming back to the Eaton Centre and just looking around and thinking, 'Oh my God. We have so much.' I'd go to a dinner party and I'd find it difficult to make sense of my old life. I didn't realize that I was suffering from PTSD, partly because I was warned that I was going to have to take some time to assimilate again. So I didn't get diagnosed right away. 

"I think what [my PTSD] started with was that I couldn't let go of what I'd seen. When kids would ask me, "Will you come and get high with me?" or when I could see that the kids had checked out of their lives. I could not let what I had seen go.I started drinking simply to fall asleep. If I didn't drink the night before, I couldn't work. If I couldn't work, why the hell was I continuing to be on the reserve? So I started to drink just so I could black everything out. As I started to have panic attacks, which I would calm by drinking. And there is really no psychological help out there. There is a counsellor who flies in once a month, but it's hard to figure out her schedule when she was coming in for a few hours. I also felt that people who really need this counsellor should use this counsellor, so I'm not going to go. Often I would compare my situation with my friend who was sexually abused at nine. Her mother also had serious gambling issues and was an alcoholic, so the entire family is experiencing the terrible effects of residential schools. You feel like, who am I to complain? It feels like you're trying to appropriate their suffering. So I blocked out some major warning bells that things were going seriously wrong.

"Even though it was a difficult experience, it's one I wouldn't change for all the money in the world. It really opened my eyes to not only the hardships that Indigenous people face, but also the resilience and the fact that people choose to continue to believe in a brighter future and have a sense of purpose, whatever their circumstances. That inspired me then and continues to inspire me today.

"I heartily recommend to anyone who has been through something serious to write a book. I feel that the writing of the book forced me to confront these emotions and process what had happened in a deep way. I don't carry it in the same way. It was something that shaped me, but I don't sit with it. I don't live with it. It doesn't negatively impact my life anymore."


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