This article was written for the West Quebec Post, and published
in January, 2003.
Florio Graham, All Rights Reserved. Please do not reprint, copy,
forward or publish without express permission from the author.
This month (January, 2003) marks the 35th anniversary of my first contact with the Sandy Lake First Nation in far northwestern Ontario. At a meeting of the United Church Women in Gatineau, we read a letter sent from a minister who had just arrived in Sandy. He described the appalling conditions he found: uninsulated houses heated by wood-burning 40-gallon oil drums, no running water, no sewage disposal, no library at the school, no hymnals for the church choir.
The UCW responded by agreeing to send a couple of boxes of old hymnals and Sunday school books, then moved on to discuss the spring bazaar.
But I couldnt dismiss this plea from the north so easily. I contacted both the minister in Sandy Lake and the Department of Indian Affairs, and set in motion an adventure I could never have imagined.
That summer, Violet Meekis, a 16-year-old who was scheduled to go out to school in the fall, came to Gatineau for two weeks that ended up changing her life, and the lives of her family.
In 1969, education in Sandy Lake ended at grade 9. Students were then sent south, to high schools with room to accommodate them in communities where boarding homes were also available. Placement was random, so youngsters who had never been off the reserve were often the only native students in their grades, while friends and relatives were sent to other towns miles away.
Violets arrival in Gatineau shocked her into a world of bubble baths and fresh milk, elevators, traffic, television, and restaurants. She visited EXPO in Montreal, the National Arts Centre, a dairy farm, museums. She shook hands with Prime Minister Trudeau on Parliament Hill and watched Apollo 11 land on the moon!
Unlike most native high school students, for whom the culture shock was too severe to bear, she made it through to graduation.
Violet returned to Sandy Lake, married and became the school secretary. Joining a pilot program for native teacher training, she took classes by distance learning, then earned her B.A., and became an assistant principal.
Meanwhile, Indian Affairs decided to allow native students to select where they wanted to attend high school, so in 1977 Violets brother, Joe, came to Ottawa, living in Gatineau for the first semester to adjust to urban life in a family setting, as his sister had eight years before. He was unable to leave the reserve earlier because Fraser had open-heart surgery, and Joe became "the man of the family" at age 16.
Joe graduated from Rideau High School in Ottawa, ran for Band Council, and when he was in charge of the Education portfolio, hired me to teach a three-day course to Band members and staff in Thunder Bay.
Joe is now the Executive Director of the Sandy Lake First Nation. He oversaw the reserves new infrastructure, including roads, water and sewage lines, and two large generators which provide electricity to all the homes.
I kept in touch with all the family over the years, visiting Sandy Lake to meet Violets parents and siblings in 1975. Violet and her sister came here for a weeks holiday two years ago, and Joe was back in Gatineau for the first time last June. Many others, including Joes wife, have become teachers. Violets oldest son will earn his B.A. this spring.
We read about the problems on native reserves, but seldom hear the success stories. Sandy Lake is one of them.