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May 7-11. 2019 - To Natuashish With Love

Updated: May 13, 2019

There is an almost mystical beauty in this quiet, far away place. I was smitten with it before we even landed. But nothing could prepare me for the giant love-fest that was about to begin.

Natuashish, Labrador is the relocated community of Davis Inlet. Davis was in pretty bad shape - so much so, the government opted to spend the money to relocate and rebuild in 2002. The community's focus is on supporting young people and they are working very hard to let go of a turbulent past and reconnect to the culture and the land.

Being able to offer my program to these students was a thrill for me. Young people think outside the box and are often able to see solutions that adults miss. Indigenous people are the stewards of the Earth and as such, we need to look to them for better solutions to the issues we are facing on our planet today. I was honoured to present Earth To Sky to them in their community.

Afterwards the students were invited to make posters and have them put up in the school. The posters highlighted some of the issues our planet is facing. They are geared towards inviting critical thinking about earth-based solutions to the problems we are facing today. The presentation uses my art as a teaching tool along with highlights of the challenges our planet is being faced with.

Earth To Sky is rooted in Indigenous understanding and seeks to invite young minds to begin thinking about the future of our world.

The Geography class explored the fascinating world of archaeology with Adrien Cesario. Students were able to handle fossils and learn about the importance of record keeping for all civilizations. It was a very interesting presentation that the entire class seemed to enjoy.

Having guest speakers in the classroom isn't something that happens very often in Natuashish and we were all given a warm welcome.

I Love First Peoples brings their wonderful shoe box campaign to remote community schools across Canada. Youth across Canada are invited to pack Friendship Boxes of things that children of varying ages would enjoy. The boxes are then distributed at a school assembly to the great joy of the students receiving them. The excitement in the gym was palpable and electric. This was a huge event for the children. Receiving gifts from caring strangers isn't common and, the anticipation of the students in receiving their Friendship Box at this assembly was huge; they all did so well in in waiting patiently for it to begin.

I'll share an experience I had while photographing the event: I went into a Kindergarten class to take photos of the children opening their boxes. As I chatted with the teacher, she showed me a little basket of ball shaped erasers and said, "Let me tell you about this little basket".

She told me that the child who found them in his box was so excited to have them. He was overjoyed at the bounty he'd received from someone who cared, someone he would likely never come to know. She said he offered one of the erasers to her - "the best one". He then put the rest into the small basket and asked her if she would share them with the other students so everyone could have something special like this. As she told me the story, she became so emotional. "You can't imagine what this is for these children. You can't know how much joy you've brought to them today in this act of kindness." I admit, I spent a moment wiping the tears from my own eyes as I left the classroom to go photograph the next one.

Both the day and our hearts were full to overflowing with love and respect for the students and teachers of Natuashish.

After school let out, our team was invited to tour the countryside by snowmobile. We were humbled by the kindness of our hosts and guides. The landscape was wild and exquisitely pristine. We were told that the snow accumulation this year was a lot more than usual and that the melt came in much faster than anyone had expected - an echo of climate change. We asked about traditional hunting and living off the land. Talk of the vanishing caribou carried with it, an air of sadness for a way of life that was rapidly declining here. The numbers used to be in the hundreds of thousands, but today, the count is around 4,000 caribou. We were told that hunting from both Indigenous and whites takes about 1,000 animals per hunt. The Innu and the caribou are deeply intertwined. If the caribou die off, a vital component of their traditional way of life will die with it. Habitat loss is one of the largest contributing elements to the decline of the caribou.

After returning from our amazing run out on the land, we settled in to watch a most remarkable and poignant movie at Simon's apartment. (Simon is the Vice Principal).

"The Grizzlies" is the true story of Russ Sheppard, a high school teacher who moved to the troubled town of Kugluktuk, Nunavut in 1998 to teach at a local school. He changed the lives of the students there with Lacrosse. Watching this movie with Educators in a remote community was a feeling hard to describe. We had an interesting conversation about how they cope with strong feelings of frustration and helplessness, what it takes to face the hardships, and how they focus on the victories and joys of the students they've come to love. We also discussed the mental health supports that are lacking for Educators in remote communities and what could be done to improve the situation.

The dogs in the community are interesting. They are free roaming and have their own "territory". It's not uncommon to open the door and have a dog greet you, hoping for a doorway snack. They certainly recognize a grocery bag when they see one and have no problem accepting a bit of cheesy love.

Getting supplies here is a consistent challenge. There is only 1 full length mirror in the community and it's in the school. Mirrors seldom make it through the rough voyage. When we arrived, the fresh vegetables were just coming in. The grocery store offers few choices, but it serves the community the best it can. The groceries and mail come in by plane and are transferred to the truck for transport. It's very easy to see how the costs of shipping items to a remote community can add up.

Leaving the teachers and students of Natuashish left me with an echo of hope for the students of the Mushuau Innu Natuashish School. There may be heartache tomorrow, there may be challenges tomorrow, but with each new sunrise, there is also hope because of the people who care about the future of this community and the youth here.

I am deeply grateful to I Love First Peoples and Air Borealis and PAL Airlines for this remarkable opportunity to visit my first remote community. What an experience.

Thank you to students Alphonse Rich, Ava Rich, Jakayla Rich, Anastasia, Taylor, Zoey, Charlotte, Journey, Ocean and Debbie for participating in the Earth to Sky Program. Thank you to the beautiful Educators who were so gracious with their time and resources.

(pictured in first image - Colleen Gray, Josee Lusignan, Adrien Cesario, and Journey, the girl with the biggest smile in Natuashish.

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