Alexandra (Alex) Shimo is a former producer at CBC radio and editor at Maclean’s. In 2010, she visited Kashechewan First Nation, a fly-in reservation in Ontario, Canada, to report on the aftermath of a water crisis.
Alex wrote Invisible North: The Search for Answers on a Troubled Reserve after experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder from the untenable living conditions on “Kash.” We spoke with her about her experiences on the reserve and the Canadian Federal Government’s lack of response to Indigenous issues.
The response has been great. With all the media attention, many have reached out. The main concern is for Kashechewan’s children — Canada’s most vulnerable population. Several of the kids interviewed had never left the confines of the reserve — an area of one square kilometre. They are essentially trapped on a barren dirt lot. Some are suffering what is called “nature deficit disorder.” This helps explain why this reserve, and others in northern Canada, have some of the world’s highest suicide rates.
Prior to publication, I began brainstorming with several Indigenous leaders, including Kashechewan’s current Chief, Leo Friday, about how the book could be used to help. We decided to organize an annual 400 km canoe trip along the Albany River where the kids would learn their cultural and spiritual traditions. The inaugural trip was last summer, and we are still raising funds. Part of the book’s proceeds go toward it. Visit the Honouring Indigenous People project to learn more.
You experienced PTSD after living on the reserve — can you share a little about your recovery?
Even as an outsider, life on the reserve was really hard. It was difficult to see children hungry, drugged out, and in pain. Sometimes, I didn’t feel safe. While living there, I had panic attacks, flashbacks, and mood swings. To cope, I began drinking heavily. Many nights, I imbibed until I passed out, and would wake up screaming. After I left Kashechewan, I tried to return to work as a journalist, but my symptoms continued, and I couldn’t concentrate. I missed deadlines and appointments. I didn’t know what was going on until my family doctor diagnosed me with PTSD. Unfortunately, there was a long wait for Ontario Health Insurance-covered care. Instead, I began working with a mindfulness coach. Using talk therapy and mindfulness, we worked through what had happened to me. Still, it took years to fully recover. I put off writing Invisible North and worked on other projects, including another book, Up Ghost River: A Chief’s Journey through the Turbulent Waters of Native History.
Has the Federal Government responded to the book in any way?
What has happened to the Indigenous peoples of Canada including residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, the anti-business provisions of the Indian Act, and the forced displacements, has been left out of the education system and history books. It’s a travesty, and it means ignorance taints the public discourse.
In your opinion, what is the single most important factor that would help foster health, happiness, and prosperity for the people of Kashechewan?
Kashechewan is located on a flood plain. Each spring, the Albany River breaks its banks, and people’s homes flood with sewage. The community wants to move to higher ground, but stay within their traditional territory. Many times, they have voted for relocation, but these wishes have always been ignored. Until the flooding issue is resolved, it is impossible for anyone to build their homes or businesses, let alone prosperity.
To learn more about issues facing Indigenous people in Canada, visit the Assembly of First Nations.
In the book, you mention that “the general public views issues on reserves as intractable. Without solutions, people feel disempowered, so they tune them out.” What’s the best way to help the people of Kashechewan?
What has happened to the Indigenous peoples of Canada including the residential schools, Sixties Scoop, the anti-business provisions of the Indian Act, and the forced displacements, has been left out of the education system and history books. It’s a travesty, and it means ignorance taints the public discourse. Monetary support is great, but so too is awareness. Read widely, and if you believe these issues matter, write to your local Member of Parliament.
Invisible North: The Search for Answers on a Troubled Reserve made The Globe and Mail’s list of the Top 100 Books of 2016. It has been shortlisted for the BC National non-fiction award and longlisted for the 2017 RBC Taylor Prize, which recognizes excellent works of literary nonfiction. To learn more about Alexandra Shimo, visit her website, check out her books, and follow her on Twitter: @AlexandraShimo.