Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The long journey downhill Spirit of life is weak at Island Lake

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Reading the stories about the Third World living conditions in Island Lake is disheartening. I've had the opportunity to visit these communities a number of times and the flight home is always a long one that has you asking how people can live the way they do there. The natural beauty of the Island Lake area is breathtaking. The emerald green forests are abundant with wildlife and the lakes teem with fish. The people that call this place home have been living in this area for thousands of years. Living off the land, in harmony with nature, has given way to the white man's way, and now, the white man's burden. It almost seems like an experiment gone wrong.

There is little resemblance to the way the people in these communities used to live. Where once there was dependence on fishing and hunting, now it is on the welfare cheque. The majority of First Nations people living here are now totally dependent on the federal government. This is pretty hard to swallow when you consider that a couple of hundred years ago they were totally self-sufficient and had been since time immemorial.

Times have changed so dramatically that some things got lost in the mix. Economic development or job creation, these are only words on the Rez. Housing, sewage and running water are things they can only dream about.

To bring perspective to what is really happening on these reserves we must try walking a mile in their moccasins.

You wake up in the morning, wipe the sleep from your eyes, and think about what you are going to do that day, but for most, there is nothing to do. Unemployment is a staggering 75 per cent to 80 per cent and most folks have come to the realization that they will never get a job.

After getting on your feet, you make your way through a house full of people. Nope, it's not friends or family that came for a visit and stayed overnight. It's about family and friends that live on the Rez and haven't a place to call home. Homeless, they move in and soon your two-bedroom house is now bursting at the seams. I shouldn't say your house because nobody owns their houses here. The federal government provides housing, but not ownership; it's hard to get excited about fixing up your hacienda if you don't own it. Unfortunately, there has always been a chronic shortage of housing, but with the population exploding on reserves, more and more people find themselves "couch surfing."

After making your way to the kitchen, you throw a couple of logs in the stove to heat up the house and boil some water for coffee. Then it's off to the bathroom. The problem is there is no bathroom. So much for sitting on the throne and reading the newspaper while leisurely running a hot bath to start your day.

It's a short walk to the backhouse, but there is nothing enjoyable about this. In summer the black flies and mosquitoes have their way with you and worse, having to sit on the dreaded frozen toilet seat in the winter.

The chores never seem to end as the water pail needs to be filled constantly. Whether for drinking or washing, it's always a long walk to the lake to fetch a pail of water.

Back at the house you pour yourself a cup of coffee and discover there is no milk. Milk costs well over $13 dollars a jug (four litres) and for most families, this is a luxury item. After drinking your coffee black, it's time to leave the house to go for a walk and visit folks along the way to pass the time of day. You pick up your $300 welfare cheque to do some shopping and wonder how you are going to make it through the month.

When you do go shopping, your loonie is only worth about 33 cents. Perishables like tomatoes, apples, oranges and milk cost three times more than they cost in Winnipeg. Almost all food has to be flown in to these communities and the air freight adds a huge cost to the food bill. More than most can bear.

After leaving the store with a few bags of groceries, you make your way home and finally take off your moccasins. It's time to share the food with family and friends. People up here in Indian Country are resilient, they have to be. They gather their strength from the most powerful thing their culture offers them -- their family and friends.

Kim Sigurdson is CEO of Aboriginal Cogeneration Corp.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 26, 2010 A17

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