Dordt College News

Up north to stay

January 23, 2012

Kooiman learns as she works with a First Nations community in Attawapiskat

In November 2011, the First Nations community in Attawapiskat in Northern Ontario, Canada, called a state of emergency because of the shortage of housing. People there live in tents and shacks without proper heating, electricity, or sewage. A trailer left behind by a DeBeers’ diamond mine now houses a family instead of a single person in each of the small rooms. The community hoped the government would help find a way to bring in some help before the temporary winter ice road across the James Bay closes with the March thaw, but the government’s initial response was that the band had mismanaged its money so it would not help. The federal government sent in a manager to go through the community’s finances at the community’s expense. The band has cut local jobs to pay the $1,300 per day charged for the financial manager’s services. The government eventually did agree to send 20 modular homes once the ice roads opened up. The crisis has gained a high profile in Canadian news. Heather Kooiman (‘07) works as a nurse in this First Nations community where most homes are in disrepair and overcrowded. She shares what she’s learned.

What have you done since graduating?

I spent the first summer working for Feed The Children Canada (FTC)—now Speroway. I ran a day camp for children and youth on the First Nations reserve of Mishkeegogamang and Big Trout Lake (Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug) in Northern Ontario.

I had hoped to work overseas in a “third world” country, but God put the pieces together so I had no choice but to go north. I did not realize that I would be walking into “third world” conditions. After my first summer in First Nations communities, I knew I would return.

Back home that first summer, I earned a lifeguarding certification so that I could teach First Nations children and young people how to swim the next summer. I  went to Mishkeegogamang at Christmas to attend a Christmas party and help put up bunk beds in homes that don’t have enough space for everyone to sleep.

I eventually followed my plan to work overseas, spending six months in Uganda working with an NGO (non-governmental organization) called Save the Mothers. The organization’s aim was to reduce maternal mortality by offering a master’s in public health leadership. The students, who were members of parliament, educators, principals, doctors, nurses, social workers, journalists, and religious leaders, went on to change government policy, create educational materials for schools, develop radio programs, write newspaper articles, and work with social and health services.

That experience made me decide to go into nursing. During my last year, I spent four months working in a native community health clinic. I also conducted research on youth well-being in the community. Everything I have done since has revolved around working with First Nations people.

Why did you take a job in Attawapiskat?

My experience in Mishkeegogamang changed my life. When I had to decide where to do my nursing placement, I chose an Aboriginal community, despite my original desire to travel the world.

I admit, I grew up with a negative perception of First Nations people. I had no desire to work with “lazy people who lived off my tax dollars.” My opinion started to change as I met them. I learned about broken treaties, the “sixties scoop” (when high numbers of native children were put into foster care or adopted, usually by white families), and residential schools.

During the past five years, I have listened to personal stories of trials and resilience. I can’t imagine living through their struggles. Now, instead of lazy people, I see resilient people; instead of poor people, I see beautiful people. Today I am ashamed to admit that I saw them as poor and lazy. Jesus calls us to love our neighbour as ourselves; “neighbour” has no boundaries. Native people are our neighbours. North Americans often show more compassion for people in Africa than for First Nations people at home.

The people I’ve come to know do not want to be pitied, they want to break the negative stereotypes. I’ve come to understand and respect them and their culture. I believe God has brought me to work with them despite my initial hesitation and that he has a purpose that I cannot even fathom. So I put my life in his hands every day.

Describe your life and work.

The hospital where I work includes a clinic that is open from 9-5 during the week. Most of the activity happens during those hours. We also have long-term care patients—elders—who require around-the-clock care. Now that it is cold and dark most of the time, I do not always get outside other than to walk to and from work. But I like to participate in community activities. I’ve helped distribute clothes and supplies during the current crisis; I also enjoy attending traditional activities like participating in sweats, drumming, and dancing.

During the current crisis, health care has continued as usual but we definitely see the effects of the housing crisis. Overcrowding of homes and the poor conditions cause respiratory issues and infectious skin conditions, which quickly pass between household members in overcrowded conditions.

Is there a solution to this crisis?

I see two groups of issues—one more visible, the other more systemic.  The surface issues include housing, unsanitary drinking water, substance abuse, diabetes, high suicide rates, high rates of infectious disease, high rates of teenage pregnancy, abuse, and welfare dependence. These concerns need to be addressed by the community and the current situation needs to change.

Hard as this may be to do, the systemic issues are even harder to address. Non-native people will not be able to fix the problems in First Nations communities. Our ways of doing things aren’t superior, they are different. We need to empower, not assimilate. History provides plenty of evidence that imposing solutions does not work. Many studies have shown that cultural continuity in communities improves mental health, which decreases suicide rates. Non-native people need to collaborate with native people to discuss our attitudes towards each other and develop goals for what our communities could look like.

I find it difficult to respond to people who ask me how we are supposed to work with people who are “lazy and simply live off our taxes.” We should never characterize an entire people by such stereotypes. Jesus loves us despite our shortcomings and calls us to love our neighbour as ourselves. This is an extremely difficult thing to do, but we are called to strive toward this command.

I believe negative attitudes played a role in the current crisis.

What keeps you there?

I want to improve the health of people in native communities and build relationships with them. I think that is key to understanding each other so that we can share and learn from each other. I plan to continue to work as a nurse or to teach nursing in northern Canada, although I dream of working for a nonprofit organization that would help First Nations people see their potential in life and be able to embrace their culture while following Jesus.

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