Kashechewan tragedy greater than water crisis

A student’s retrospective on teaching healthy living on the northern Ontario reserve

Rachel Bigenwald, ArtSci '06
Rachel Bigenwald, ArtSci '06

Every child dreams. In Canada we try to indulge the dreams of each child equally. Publicly funded education, universal health care and other social services draw people to Canada from every corner of the world so that they may hope for a better future for their children. Yet when it comes to our aboriginal peoples, the original people of this land, neglect and inequality are the reality.

The E. coli contamination crisis in Kashechewan that has unfolded over the last two months is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problems faced by aboriginal people living on remote reserves. The problems go beyond the yellow water, which much of the time was not even available due to regular water outages. They go beyond the lack of reliable electricity. They go beyond the fact that there is no full-time doctor working in Kashechewan, so those who cannot be helped by a nurse must be flown by helicopter to southern hospitals. These problems are deeply rooted in the lack of opportunity to rise above the decrepit conditions in which many northern Canadian aboriginals find themselves.

Last summer I spent five weeks in Kashechewan teaching health education to the youth of the reserve though a program set up by Queen’s Medical Outreach (QMO), a club and non-profit organization dedicated to traveling to places in need to teach healthy-living topics such as responsible sexuality, hygiene, conflict resolution, substance abuse and parenting. In the past, QMO has sent students to Guyana, Belize, Kenya, South Africa, northern Ontario and Nunavut. The tragedy is that I need only travel within my own province to witness third-world conditions.

For youth who have been exposed to stresses that would be considered unacceptable for the rest of Canada’s children, the kids in Kashechewan dream high. One 10-year-old girl I met is a promising student who wants to be the first female Aboriginal to enter space. A little boy in grade one has a great talent for drawing. Another girl, a high school student, spends much of her time caring for her younger brother, but spends the rest of her time at the nursing station. She wants to learn everything she can because she hopes to one day be a nurse.

But how do you teach kids to stay healthy, to keep fighting for their dreams? How do you teach them to resist the temptation to follow a crowd of depressed community members? With little possibility for a healthy future, no foreseeable way to achieve their dreams, and an endless cycle of nowhere to go and nothing to do, it begins to look hopeless to many of these kids. This was the greatest dilemma I faced in those five weeks.

To anyone who is tempted to argue that the reserve members have the ability to lobby the government for their own rights, I would ask: how do people lobby for a right that they do not even know is due to them and have never had? If you have never had access to fruit, vegetables and milk because they are too expensive, how do ambitious teenagers convince the government that these are their rights? Even when Aboriginal peoples have lobbied the government, historically, the response has amounted to little more than empty promises.

A new location for the reserve or a new water purification system won’t solve the problems at Kashechewan. The underlying social and economic issues that are intertwined into living on a reserve in northern Canada are beyond my comprehension, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore them.

I did all that I could do: I taught children about healthy living and provided extra-curricular opportunities that some of these children had never had. I never before saw such enthusiasm as I did when about 100 children, aged 7 to 13, poured into the school gymnasium to attend the first dance class I offered.

Every May, these kids can count on Queen’s students coming to teach and entertain them. So why do they not deserve to have learning opportunities year round? Why are their dreams less important than other children’s?

Kashechewan is not the only case. There are people living on many reserves across Canada suffering the same deplorable conditions. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them. That’s the essence of inhumanity.”

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