Two Years Under the Sleeping Giant

Prior to York, I spent two years in the city of Thunder Bay. What’s a Park Avenue socialite doing in the tropics of the tundra? Well, I was studying in the bush.

I learned many things over the course of four semesters. Of them: how to put out a grease fire - no really, I caught on fire; which furs to wear for appropriate weather patterns (I still have my fox); but above all, how to survive on your own. I was only eighteen.

My friend has this gorgeous blue mustang that we would cruise in up and down the Harbour Expressway. Crisp, clean air, windows down and  Nicki Minaj’s “Whip it” thumping loudly against the speakers.

We were the privileged youth.

We shared  an apartment, considered a luxury given the lack of housing. Pierced and tattooed, I ran a performing arts company wasting days dreaming about Toronto and the possibility of an escape from Northern alienation.

For a small city with a population  just over 100,000, Thunder Bay is known for two things: isolation and the culture clash. Originally consisting of two towns now amalgamated, the Fort William First Nations reservation sits at the south most part of the city and is  separated by the Kaministiquia River leading into Lake Superior. Segregation was not only geographically-based, but embedded within the narrowmindedness of many locals. If you weren’t white, you were “native.”

Do you know what it feels like to be the butt of a joke, a scapegoat for answers often troubling and unknown?

In a 2006 population profile, only 10% of the population reported holding first nations status. How can a city so small have an issue so big?

Aboriginals were given no justice - they were the problem. If blame was to be given, the assumption was native; If a joke was to be told, the humour was native; when a homicide was reported, the culprit was suspected native.

I arrived in that city only to long for departure from an area and backwards culture that was ultimately unfamiliar and oppressive. Being out and gay was not something everyone equally came across, nor did they accept. Looking back, how was I ever able to conquer the challenges and barriers when I was busy running away from myself? I have the analytical guise of an owl when it comes to tackling the unknown so I was fortunate enough to take life by the wrists and pummel through two years. But what about those who have been conditioned by restraints; a place called home?

In our feature story this month, Brooks Harvey provides a brief look into the resources available for aboriginal peoples, focusing on the intergenerational conspiracy faced by troubled youth. Whereas I was able to dislocate from the time-stunted culture of Thunder Bay, aboriginal youth are bound by  political, social and cultural restraints that cause strain on access to these pivotal services provided to support and sustain.

For those yet to observe a first-hand account of these challenges,  how can educators prepare themselves for the unknown? It’s one thing to talk about these issues, sure. But unless you’ve come face-to-face with the boundaries, you’re experience is pretty much void. If our goal is to be there for the students, how close can we actually acquaint ourselves without being fully aware of the circumstances they face?

I used to get this chilling feeling while crossing the James Street bridge over to the reserve. Whether it was for cheap gas or hill hikes, the underlying notion of despair and trespassing was always prevalent. Even though we weren’t breaking any laws being on their land, you could sense an eerie looming regardless of the sunshine beating against Mount McKay.

These two years allowed me to see another means of life. “To be educated is not to have arrived at a certain destination, it is to travel with a certain pint of view.” Do I regret the time spent living in isolation? Absolutely not.


Director: Fifth Year Undergraduate, I/S: History & English

When he’s not frolicking around Toronto or trying to take over the world, you can usually find him swapping paint colors for his condo or picking out new outfits and man purses for his future Pomeranian, Efron.

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