How we build a new relationship with Ontario’s First Nations

RUTH ANN ONLEY

When my husband, David, was installed as the 28th Lieutenant-Governor in 2007, he pledged to expand on the aboriginal youth literacy initiatives of his predecessor, the Hon. James Bartleman. Unfortunately, the communities where these initiatives are most needed are in some of the most remote regions in northern Ontario and quite inaccessible to somebody like David, who relies on a scooter to get around.

The aboriginal initiatives could have continued under long-distance management, but David knew it was vital for their success that there be a personal connection between him, as The Queen’s representative, and the young people whose lives would be most affected. So I volunteered to journey north on his behalf and, over the seven years of his term in office, visited 23 summer literacy camps and 13 First Nation communities.

I visited Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) on National Aboriginal Day in 2013, when I was accompanied by Sharon Johnston, wife of the Governor-General. When I returned to KI on Sept. 18, my companions for a two day visit were Sophie Rhys-Jones, the Countess of Wessex, Premier Kathleen Wynne, Lieutenant- Governor-designate Elizabeth Dowdeswell, a delegation of women leaders from the corporate, academic and philanthropic sectors, and Andrée Cazabon, the talented young woman whose 2010 documentary 3rd World Canada shone a light on the lives of young people in KI.

You may wonder what we hoped to accomplish by taking such a group to KI? Nurturing the relationship between the Crown and First Nations of Ontario is an ongoing concern for the Lieutenant-Governor’s office and a visit from a member of the Royal Family had huge significance, for the community and for future relations. The presence of the Countess of Wessex, demonstrated to the community that they matter. And the fact that this lovely young woman, daughter-in-law of “the Great White Mother,” engaged on an individual level with everybody she met and wanted to hear their stories, deepened the significance of her visit.

A word that came up many times, before, during and after our stay in KI, was Reconciliation. In the context of our visit, rather than a transaction or a process, reconciliation meant dissolving a relationship that no longer works and building a new one, by watching, listening and bearing witness.

Spending time with the women elders of KI helped us to see the community through their eyes. We learned more about major continuing problems like unemployment, sub-standard housing and substance abuse. But we also heard of the challenges faced by the people of KI at the personal level. For example, a lack of adequate birthing facilities means pregnant women must leave their families three weeks before their due date and await the birth of their babies alone in Thunder Bay. And, because the KI school only goes to Grade 10, bright, inquisitive kids who want to go further must leave the reserve to finish their education.

I am still processing the emotional aftermath of our visit to KI – as I suspect every member of our delegation is also doing – but certain visuals stand out in my memory, foremost among them the Countess standing with a group of women elders, who had come to the airport to say goodbye and spontaneously began to sing God Save The Queen, bringing her to the point of tears.

On my visits to the summer literacy camps over the past seven years, I have seen the tangible results of the Lieutenant-Governor’s aboriginal initiatives, in the way that the children engage with their counselors and are open to the pleasures of reading. But on many occasions, after visiting individual First Nations communities and witnessing the challenges they face, I have asked myself the question, “Have we changed anything?”

On this occasion, I believe we have sown the seeds of a collaborative effort between the KI community and some powerful women leaders who can make change happen outside of the political process.

Our delegation – and especially the presence of the Countess of Wessex – demonstrated to the leadership, youth and community of KI that people in the world beyond the reserve care about them and their future. By honouring their history and culture and, perhaps more importantly, by transmitting back to our own communities what we witnessed, our visit has begun a process we can build on, if we have the collective courage to do so.