Expecting poverty, Eric Bombicino found beauty and generosity in a remote First Nation town
When reporter Eric Bombicino flew to Pikangikum, he expected to be greeted with crushing poverty. What he experienced, instead, was a community bound together by its connection to the land and culture of quiet humility.
Before heading to Pikangikum, the remote, fly-in aboriginal reserve about 1,400 kilometres northwest of Toronto, I’d heard and read a lot about it.
It is not part of the developed world, I was told. Extreme deprivation, desperate poverty and a raft of infrastructural, social and governance problems abound. Alcoholism and addiction are rampant. The basic necessities of life, like housing, running water and warm clothing, are not available to many. Suicide plagues the community. It is the “the suicide capital of the world,” read a national magazine article from 2012. Sixteen youth have killed themselves in two years in this town of about 3,000. All by hanging, always by hanging, and in clusters, some as young as 10. Their graves adorn the front yards of homes, an Ojibwa tradition. Stray dogs roam the reserve. Youth can be heard howling into the night, high from inhaling bags of gasoline.
As I touched down in Pikangikum, after a “smooth” five flight connector hop-scotching around northern Ontario, my first thoughts were not on the above descriptions. Despite the extreme deprivation, borderline third world conditions and the sense that many people walk around in perpetual grief with sometimes as many as four or five immediate family members having killed themselves, Pikangikum is beautiful. Really beautiful.
This region of Canada is home to thousands of lakes, gouged, scoured and sculpted by the retreat of glaciers during the last ice age. It's surrounded by the dense green crush of the boreal forest. Pikangikum Lake is a perfect example of the “creative destruction” of large-scale geologic processes. Standing by the shore of Pikangikum Lake in the evening as the sun dips below the tree-topped horizon, light dancing off its snow covered expanse, I was offered the tiniest window into the deep spiritual connection the people of Pikangikum have to their land. It is a part of their identity.
My admiration for the natural beauty of Pikangikum aside, this trip was not without its challenges, the first of which happened weeks before my arrival. The five room hotel in Pikangikum was booked solid, and I couldn’t find accommodations. Pikangikum is crippled by a housing crisis and unable to build more homes because their maxed-out diesel generator system cannot provide enough electricity. The prospect of not having a place to stay in a town where temperatures that can dip below -40 centigrade was not a pleasant one. The cloud of potential failure that always looms large and follows me around like Peter Pan’s shadow on every project I work on, darkened and expanded. Chief and council could not help me.
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About a week before my flight, the Principal of the school with whom I had shared at most four brief email correspondences offered to let me stay in his home while he was away in Winnipeg. Crisis averted.
The second challenge was transportation. There are no taxis in Pikangikum. Or car rental services. And, although the main centre of the community is tightly packed and traversable by foot, the airport is quite a distance away. I had no luck with Chief or council about securing a ride. Again, the kindness of a community member I had sent a handful of emails to intervened. If you are ever in Pikangikum I highly recommend the 10-plus year old GMC Suburban driven by Colleen Estes, the cheery and warm Mennonite Minister originally from Minnesota, as your mode of transportation.
The third challenge was perhaps the most difficult. The people of Pikangikum are extremely shy. Exactly zero people let me take their picture. When I first arrived at the band office to introduce myself, two female councilors scurried away; another councilor swiveled his chair and turned his back on me.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why. One reason is likely historical. Against a backdrop of colonialism and forced residential schooling — aboriginal children were removed from their homes, forced into schools to be assimilated into “European” culture and physically and sexually abused — a pale-faced outsider is not immediately met with trust. To make matters worse, I am a reporter. Pikangikum has been deeply hurt by the myriad reports of suicide and destitution.
Another reason is probably cultural. The people of Pikangikum seem, to me at least, less prone to egoism. The individual is intimately connected to land and place, as well as the history of her people and community. The “Western” ideal of the detached rugged individual, independent from the world, a master of his or her own destiny, is not part of their cultural DNA. Grand-standing, narcissism and “let me tell you what I think about this..." are not rewarded. On an existential level, in order "to be," you don’t always have to be heard. Many people I know don’t seem to be aware of this option for existence.
I later learned to be comfortable in silence. To take my reporter’s hat off, and put my notes down, and not zing off question after question. Cheesy analogy warning: like how the silence between notes of music is required for sound, I needed to learn to let those silences exist. Instead of a linear process of questioning, it was more circular, nibbling around the edges at first. Not before long, the conversation flowed.
I was there for less than a week, but I won’t soon forget the experience. As I wrote in the piece, a lack of energy weaves its way deeply into the community. But, getting a reliable source of energy will not be a magic bullet. It will not guarantee a vibrant and healthy Pikangikum. But it offers an opportunity, a platform to grow and flourish, as opposed to a tether that binds and limits. Pikangikum still waits for reliable energy in the form of connection to the main power grid fewer than 100 kilometres away. I hope it arrives soon.