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Summers of 2008 and 2009 in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug

Say goodbye to pavement!

I don’t know if the Wasaya airlines shuttle driver noticed the confused look on my face, but he didn’t elaborate any further.

No pavement? Is he serious?

I considered myself a fairly well-travelled guy for my age, but I knew teaching literacy to youth in an isolated, fly-in only northern reserve community like Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug would be different from anything I’d experienced before. I expected a different standard of living. I knew there would be a cultural difference. With a different language, religious tradition and political system comes a range of social differences, but on some level, I was prepared for that kind of unfamiliarity. But no pavement?

The next two months changed me. They tested the limits of my stamina, patience and creativity. I developed profound relationships with people I probably never would have crossed paths with in my southern Ontario life. Once, we had to end an outdoor activity because of a wolf. After two months in KI, a lack of pavement would have seemed a detail so trivial that it wouldn’t even be worth mentioning.

It was a tough job. Some kids were a handful. Some days, they were more than that. I missed home. There were times I counted down the days until my flight out. But the kids kept coming back. They wanted to read, to listen to stories, to play word games, make crafts and play sports. And my indefatigable colleagues (some from KI and others from southern Ontario) kept coming up with great new ideas ("Let's get the kids together and write our own book!"; "Let's build a haunted maze!"; "Let's organize a soccer tournament!") and they inspired me to give it everything I had.

It was worth it.

The question of impact is a challenging one. Most of my colleagues say that working on a northern reserve community had a greater impact on them than they had on the community – that they learned more than they taught. They’re right. I left with a far more nuanced understanding of the challenges reserve communities face. I saw an incredible strength often overlooked by the mainstream media, a strength that forced me to confront my own weaknesses. I left KI a different —I think better—man.

But I think we made an impact in KI, too. First-hand, I saw kids improving their reading skills and self-confidence, tools I believe are crucial to the success of both an individual and a community. And they were clearly enjoying themselves, clearly seeing some value in what we were doing, because although voluntary school in the summer is a tough sell for a lot of kids, every day they kept coming back.

The day we left, a crowd of primary school kids gathered outside our house to see us off. It wasn’t easy leaving them behind. We loaded our stuff into the back of the pickup, drove to the airport, and began a glum wait in the lobby.

After a while, two of the kids suddenly showed up. They'd walked the long dirt road to the airport to see us off, again. They'd brought a jar of peanut butter, for some reason, and invented a "find the peanut butter” game to play with us in the airport lobby.

I began to count down the days again – this time, until my return to KI. When I went back the next summer, I experienced all the same challenges, and was frustrated all over again by the limits of my own capacity that a tough job reveals. I’d gotten a little better at it, maybe. The kids that were back for another summer had gotten better at reading, definitely. I was amazed at the progress of two of the most challenging kids from the previous summer. The difference in both their reading skills and their ability to get along with the other students was like night and day.

Most of all, the friendships I’d made with my colleagues from KI were stronger. Those friendships remain today. I’m in a totally different place now, more than four years after my second summer. I hadn’t yet met my wife the last time I saw KI. I still think about it every day. In KI, they don’t say goodbye.

—by Graeme Truelove (Aborginal Summer Camp Counsellor 2008 & 2009)

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