Day 54: Goodbye

Well, here I am.  Fifty-four days have come and gone since I said goodbye to the Toronto skyline and boarded a plane headed to Thunder Bay.  This experience has now come full-circle as I find myself sitting in the Thunder Bay airport lounge and waiting for a flight to take me to Toronto.

An early flight from Fort Albany this morning took us on an adventure to pick up teams in Attawapiskat and Peawanuk before landing in Thunder Bay.  I am now a few hours into a seven hour layover that has given me some time to catch up with teams from other communities before boarding the plane that will officially mark the end of my Northern adventure.

As I finished packing up my things in Fort Albany this morning, I took a few seconds to skim through the pages of my journal.  It is hard to explain what the combination of memories tucked away in those pages means to me right now.  It is much easier to explain that I could not do much to stop the tears from rolling down my cheeks as I watched the small community disappear beneath me this morning.  And maybe that is all the explaining that I need to do right now.

At this moment, it is impossible for me to distill final thoughts, lessons, or reflections from my experience as a whole.  I know that time will make that easier to do.  However, there are many moments from this experience that I feel very viscerally connected to and I will hold these closest as I board the plane to Toronto.  Among many others, these moments include participating in a sweat lodge, attending a shaking tent ceremony, sprinting on the airstrip (even though we were not supposed to be there), learning to play euchre, singing songs from RENT at the top of my lungs after a particularly great run, being reminded that kids are kids regardless of their location or circumstance, and recognizing just how much history, knowledge, and life there is in the Northernmost parts of this province.

After a late night last night, I pulled myself out of bed at 6:45am to go for one last run around the community.  I made sure to include a stop by the river on my route and said goodbye to a landscape that has helped me put things in perspective over the past two months.  And although the rest of the morning was somewhat stressful (I managed to lock myself out of the house and we were very behind in our packing when our ride to the airport arrived), this was the perfect way to start the day.

I am not sure how I will feel when I land in Toronto or begin reconnecting with friends and family, but I do know that the reality of the past two months is slowly starting to sink in.  I found parts of myself this summer that I have been losing touch with in the city.  I set goals that have seemed too lofty or ridiculous surrounded by the pressures of everyday life in Southern Ontario.  Above all, I was lucky enough to meet many wonderful people and to have had the opportunity to listen and learn.

Goodbye Fort Albany.  Thank you for an incredible summer.

Fort Albany Sunrise

Day 50: Sunset

Walking home from doing some work at the school tonight, I swore for a second that the sky was on fire.  I have witnessed some pretty great sunsets since being in Fort Albany, but the sky tonight will be the one that I remember the most vividly.

These pictures will never come close to the real thing, but here is a glimpse of the sky from my front porch tonight:

Fort Albany SunsetFort Albany Sunset 2

Day 39: Open House

Tonight we hosted an open house to give the kids a chance to show off what they have been doing at camp so far this summer.

The kids coloured and decorated posters that we created and we posted them all over town.  A group of kids from our afternoon program stayed after camp (we didn’t even have to ask for volunteers – they volunteered themselves) and helped us make a trip to the Northern Store to pick up snacks.  They also hung up artwork and organized the room with all of their favourite games/activities laid out on the tables.

Almost all of our regular campers came out to the event with their families.  It was incredibly endearing to see how excited they were to show off their crafts, favourite books, and the photo slideshow that we put together.

Here are a few photos of the room before the open house (all of the other photos from the event have campers in them, so I am not able to post them here):

Open HouseOpen House 2Open House 3Open House 4

Day 33: Losing Control

I realize that the phrase “losing control” may conjure images of two distressed counsellors and a room full of rowdy kids.  Or perhaps thoughts of disorganization and a lack of planning come to mind.  Well, that is certainly not what I am trying to imply here.

It feels like we have hit our stride with programming this week.  Just by making a few small changes in our approach to camp, we have been able to create a very different environment for the kids that seems to be making them more willing to engage and try new things.  I really believe that a lot of this has to do with simultaneously being more organized and being willing to give up control.  To some this may sound like too much of an oxymoron to make sense, but hopefully I will be able to explain what I am trying to get at.

For the most part, we have stopped trying to have kids stop and start activities at the same time.  We have also been much more fluid in our transitions between activities.  With only two of us and sometimes upwards of 20 kids in a camp environment, it is easy to assume that an increased level of scheduling and discipline is the easiest way to run an effective program.  I think this assumption is wrong.

We have shifted our program to involve an ongoing range of different activities that kids can choose to begin at different times.  We have also created more self-directed activities that kids can move through at their own pace.  We actively encourage everyone to participate in all of the activities and have found that more participate if they have a chance to observe for a little while and then gradually join in.  This is very different from trying to gather a large group, providing one set of instructions, and asking everyone to begin at the same time.  This almost always results in a small group of kids who are interested and a large majority who either refuse to participate or are too shy to contribute.

Without a doubt this new approach can be challenging at times and it sometimes feels like we are creating more work for ourselves (we are continually setting up new activities and explaining things to kids individually), but it is not surprising to me that engagement has increased.  I dislike being herded through a set of activities as much as the next adult, so why would kids feel any different?  But, given the chance to try new things in a way that gives me agency, I am much more likely to participate and contribute.

It is hard to let go of that control though.  When a room gets noisy or not everyone is working on one activity, it is easy to feel like you are doing something wrong.  But this need for constant control is what makes classrooms feel unwelcoming to kids who should be given freedom to explore and learn to think for themselves.

A more flexible model like this (or something like it) is what I talk about for our education system all the time.  Anyone close to me knows that it does not take much to set me off on a rant about the ways that our schools often expend unnecessary energy trying to control kids for the wrong reasons.  But rant aside, it is nice to be able to try a new approach, at least in some small way.  I am certainly not claiming to have it all figured out after some trial and error with  a day camp program, but in a world where maintaining power and control often appears to be the highest priority, I will say that I think a little bit of patience can go a long way.

I want to write more about this and spend some more time thinking about what this means in the context of education, but these are just a few thoughts for now.  If there is one thing that I have been learning it is that a willingness to lose control does not always make things easier, but it can make a world of difference to a kid trying to find their way.

Day 28: The Albany River

Adding another adventure to our weekend after a walk to the Youth Camp yesterday, we had a chance to go for a boat ride on the Albany River today.

Joan and Edmund Metatawabin are a wonderful couple here who have been incredibly welcoming and supportive since our first day on the ground in Fort Albany.  Joan is a former teacher who currently runs the healthy food program at the school and helps to organize regular farmers’ markets in the community.  Edmund is a former chief of Fort Albany First Nation and is currently an author and activist (he has a book coming out in August that I am very much looking forward to reading).

Joan came and found us working at the school this afternoon and invited us out for a boat ride.  We were in the middle of planning for our week of camp, but were happy to take a break for the afternoon to get out on the water.  We have been hinting to almost everyone we have met that we have been anxious to see more of the river, so this was a very welcomed opportunity!

We hopped in the back of Joan’s pickup truck along with her five-year-old granddaughter (who also comes to camp with us) and she drove us to her house.  They live in a wonderful log cabin just off the reserve boundary along the edge of the river.  We climbed down the river embankment, into the boat, and headed off down the river.

Edmund navigated the boat through the river, telling us more about the history of the land and the community.  As we boated past the site of the original community, a few structures were visible from the water and we learned that these are used by community members who gather at the site each summer.  As for the history, Edmund told us that this area floods quite regularly and when missionaries arrived they deemed it unsafe.  They moved further inland to be safer and the resulting community is the current site of Fort Albany First Nation.

As with my experience walking to the Youth Camp yesterday, it is hard to find words that accurately describe the beauty of the landscape on either side of the river.  We did not pass any other boats on the river and the land around us was completely undisturbed.  That sort of experience can be completely overpowering if you let it hit you.  It made me feel small and part of something much bigger.  Beyond that, I am at a loss for words.

Albany River
We pulled the boat into a small sandbar in the middle of the river at a point where we could just barely see James Bay from a distance (it would have been at least another 45-minute ride by boat to actually reach the bay).  We waded out into the water in our clothes for a swim and spent quite a bit of time splashing and playing with Joan and Ed’s granddaughter.  The water was shallow enough that we were able to walk through the river to another sandbar that was exposed above the water.  By the time we were ready to leave, the tide had gone out even further and another sandbar had appeared just beside where we had tied up the boat.

Albany River 2Albany River 3Albany River 4
The boat ride back was one again quite silent as I tried to take in as much of the scenery as possible.  This has certainly been a busy weekend without much time to rest and recover from a busy week at camp, but this really does not bother me at all.  It has been a weekend full of perspective, which is something that I have been craving lately.  Even with a slight lack of sleep, I think I am feeling even more ready to take on another busy week.

Day 27: Youth Camp

We decided to go on an adventure today and walk to the Youth Camp where everyone here talks about going swimming.  We were told that it was about a three-mile walk and although most people drive there, our lack of a vehicle (or even bicycles) left walking as our only option.  It was a gorgeous day with a nice breeze though, so that task seemed much less daunting than it would have been on a warmer summer day.

The walk began along a road that closely hugged the river, but as we continued the river occasionally disappeared into the trees.  We did a fair amount of exploring along the way, stopping to investigate smaller paths and trails as we stumbled upon them and taking time to enjoy the view of the towering trees on either side of us.

Road to The Dykes
After about 80 minutes of walking, we began to wonder if we had made a wrong turn since we had yet to find anything that resembled a Youth Camp (or, at the very least, a place to go swimming).  Just as we gave ourselves another 15 minutes to keep walking, a tall dyke came into view.  We climbed up the side, barely managing not to slide back down on the loose gravel, and were welcomed at the top by a breathtaking view.

The Dykes
Even though it was an absolutely beautiful day, there were only a few people swimming and enjoying the weather by the water.  We walked down to the water and then made our way back to explore the Youth Camp a little bit more.  It sounds like the camp is used primarily during the spring and fall months for youth gatherings, but is also occasionally used by teachers organizing events for groups of students throughout the school year.

Youth CampYouth Camp 2Youth Camp 3
After exploring the Youth Camp for a little while, I took some time to walk along the shoreline.  I put my feet in the water and spent some time just staring out at the river.  It is hard to explain what it feels like to be standing on the edge of an island in Northern Ontario looking out at a landscape that is inconceivably vast.  It is also hard not to accept moments like that as ones of clarity and perspective.  At the risk of sounding too hyperbolic, all I could really do is take a deep breath, smile, and take a mental photograph that would hopefully be much more vivid than a real one could ever be.

The Dykes 2
Wanting to make it back to town in time for a community event, our stay at the Youth Camp was somewhat short-lived, but I certainly plan on going back before my time here comes to an end.  The walk back went by surprisingly quickly as I took in the view around me and allowed myself to feel small in the midst of the land around me.  It seemed like a good time to reflect and think about just how beautiful the land here really is.

Day 19: Farmers’ Market

While setting up for our first day of camp last week, I found a printed copy of this article tucked away in a drawer in the school cafeteria.  Having only just arrived here at the time and having quite a few questions about the cost of food after my first trip to the Northern Store, I was quite excited to learn about the farmers’ markets that take place regularly in Fort Albany.  I was also very intrigued by the work that community members are doing to make healthy produce accessible to people living here.

Today we volunteered with the farmers’ market and had a chance to witness this extraordinary undertaking in action.  We stayed after camp to help fill food boxes for those who had pre-ordered them.  A $50.00 box contained 1 bag of carrots, 1 red pepper, 1 green pepper, 2 large tomatoes, 4 ears of corn, 1 head of lettuce, 1 bag of onions, 1 bag of apples, 1 bag of sweet potatoes, 8 bananas, 2 packages of blueberries, 2 bags of clementines, 3 peaches, 3 nectarines, 4 apricots, and 1 package of strawberries.  Even as we were filling the boxes, calls continued to come in from people hoping that a box might be available at the last-minute.

Farmers' MarketFarmers' Market 2
After filling the boxes, we took the remaining fruits and vegetables outside to set up the market.  There were people waiting outside of the school as early as half an hour before the scheduled start time.  When it was finally announced that the market was open, people immediately began running towards the food.

Farmers' Market 3
During the market, I helped to run one of the checkout stations.  As people unloaded large boxes of fruits and vegetables for us to count, so many commented about just how much cheaper this food was than what is available at the Northern Store.  One striking example of this was corn.  At the Northern Store, two ears of corn normally cost over $5.00, but the same (and likely higher quality) produce could be purchased for just $1.00 at the farmers’ market.

I have been trying to read more about food accessibility in Northern communities and recently came across the video below posted on the FoodShare website.  It goes into much more detail about just how much effort goes into making these markets possible and how important they are to the community.

Between what I have seen living here in Fort Albany over the past few weeks and what I have learned through conversations with community members, I can’t help but feel angered by the denial of fresh and affordable produce to individuals living in remote Northern communities.  It is wonderful to see people here addressing the issue directly and refusing to simply accept the prices of produce at the Northern Store.  At the same time, I cannot help but wrestle with the question of what needs to change on a broader and systemic level to make access to healthy and affordable produce a reality in remote communities.

I will save additional thoughts on that topic for another day, but I certainly believe that we can do much better.  In the meantime, I am looking forward to helping with a few more farmers’ markets in the coming weeks and spending time getting to know the wonderful people who are so committed to making them happen.