“We want our dignity back,” says an Indigenous educator in Whitedog, Manitoba.

I visited the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations (“Whitedog”) in Northern Ontario in early May. Once I arrived at the school, the parking lot was empty. When I tried opening the doors to the school, the doors were locked. I called the school, but no one picked up.

Surprised, I started driving around the town, asking anyone I could find to tell me what had happened to the school. Some said the school would open later, others said the school was closed, but everyone told me that the town was empty because that day was “payday” and that everyone had already left. “Payday” is welfare cheque arrival day, so they meant everyone left to do groceries in nearby Kenora or Winnipeg.

I found a group of ladies who contacted the principal’s sister. The principal came to get me. Julia, the principal, greeted me and apologized for the school closure. When it’s payday and one place closes, everyone follows suit and closes, including the school. What can you do if the bus drivers are gone, all the kids are gone with their parents out of town, and teachers are gone?

Five decades ago, nine tonnes of mercury were illegally dumped into the Wabigoon-English River by the Dryden Chemical Company and the Dryden Pulp and Paper Company, both subsidiaries of the British multinational, Reed International. The residents suffered acute mercury poisoning and its effects are still seen among the young people today.

The two companies involved, the Ontario government, and the Canadian federal government collectively paid a one-time settlement of $16.67 million in 1986. However, the community have seen little of this money as the federal government’s governance system as dictated by the Indian Act has made it difficult for band councils and chiefs to negotiate for their people.

Julia invited me to her house and we had coffee. Naturally, I started asking all kinds of questions.

Instead of paraphrasing her comments, I’ll let her speak for her community here:

“This town used to be a commercial fishing town. Since the river got poisoned, there’s no source of income. We have an 85% unemployment rate. I mean, how are we supposed to pick ourselves up when everything’s poisoned from our water to the land to the people?

The government just throws money at the problem by tying all three communities together. There’s a reason why these three First Nations communities were three separate communities. They just group us together and tells us to figure out the money by ourselves. That’s been bad for us here.

The elders are especially skeptical of sending kids to schools. I survived the residential school system as well. Then there was the Sixties Scoop where Indigenous children were taken away and put in foster homes or adoption in primarily white middle-class families.  

When my generation hears that my children and my grandchildren will go to a school, all the trauma comes with that. That’s why the attendance rates are low and the parents don’t particularly care so much if their children are in school or not.

In some ways, they’re relieved to see their children safely in their house, not away at a school when who-knows-what might be happening there. Even when that school is run by Indigenous people, that intergenerational trauma just doesn’t go away.”

I asked her: “What kind of future do you envision for the Indigenous peoples here?”

Julia responded: “Reconciliation needs to happen at a legal and governmental level, yes, but true reconciliation will start with education with individual citizens understanding what happened to the Indigenous people, how they are still oppressed, and working together to restore our dignity. We want our dignity back.”

I left Whitedog with a heavy heart.

How is it that every Indigenous community I visit has such a tragic history? How are we, as Canadians, as fellow human beings, okay with this? How can we live with ourselves? Is this the kind of future we want? Why else would we perpetuate this reality?