The top of Ontario: Isolated Fort Severn tries to chart its own course - InfoNews

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The top of Ontario: Isolated Fort Severn tries to chart its own course

A hunter rides a snowmobile across the frozen Severn River in Fort Severn, Ontario's most northerly community, on Friday, April 27, 2018. Hunting is still very much part of the community's way of life. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel
May 11, 2018 - 4:00 PM

FORT SEVERN, Ont. - You can't get much further from the carpeted corridors of power in Ontario's capital city without stepping onto the frozen waters of Hudson Bay.

This is Fort Severn, Ontario's most northerly community, a mostly Cree town of 463 souls perched along the end of the 1,000-kilometre-long Severn River. Here in the Hudson lowlands on the very edge of the treeline, where the muskeg heaves with the seasons and good land is gold, roads can turn from rock hard to boot-squelching mud within hours.

This remote nook of the province is connected to the rest of world by small plane weather permitting, a once-a-year barge full of supplies loaded about 800 kilometres away in Moosonee, Ont., or via what is billed as the world's longest ice road, which joins Gillam, Man., in the west to Peawanuck, Ont., about 700 kilometres to the southeast.

As Neil Young plays via satellite radio in his truck and a frigid north wind whips off the frozen bay, Lawrence Bluecoat, who says he's around 42, laments the passing of the days when the community roamed a huge territory in pursuit of migratory birds and caribou and the fact that "spoiled" young people can't speak proper Cree.

But, as frequently occurs during conversation here, talk inevitably turns to a deeply ingrained suspicion of outside politics and a world beamed in via satellite and increasingly robust broadband internet.

"It really doesn't matter who's in there, we get screwed anyway," Bluecoat says. "The federal government came with their treaties and made us sign. Society thinks native people are just freeloaders and just living off their tax dollars. In reality they extract billions and billions of dollars off our lands."

Like other First Nation communities in the North, snowmobiles are the vehicle of choice during the long, fierce winters, while four-wheel ATVs and trucks emerge with the thaw. Many good natured dogs run alongside owners' vehicles. Kids play in half-frozen puddles or on the colourful jungle gym outside the landmark green elementary school that is one of the most modern in the country. In front of the Wasaho Cree Nation School, the Maple Leaf and Ontario flag flank the Fort Severn flag with its polar bear emblem.

Robin Chamney, 63, the new principal, says 87 students are enrolled. Originally from Windsor, Ont., Chamney says attendance is close to the provincial average — hunting season excepted — and students all have computers or tablets.

"I don't need anything," Chamney says. "All our needs are met in terms of resources."

At the modest Northern grocery, department and hardware store — the only retail outlet and only place to buy a coffee — some may experience sticker shock. A three-pound bag of apples and a few oranges sells for a discounted $14.19, and a litre of milk is priced well above $3.

Unlike most Indigenous communities in Canada, tap water in Fort Severn is safe to drink — coming from a high-tech treatment plant staffed by provincially certified operators such as Paul Matthews, who proudly shows off neatly filled-out log sheets of chlorine residuals.

As the raven flies, the 15-square-kilometre Fort Severn is almost as far from the legislature in Toronto as Halifax is. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the noise of the looming provincial election barely penetrates, partly because of the distance, partly because of the abiding mistrust of governments.

Located atop the vast new Kiiwetinoong riding in a region the New Democrats have long dominated provincially, no one can name the party's leader, Andrea Horwath. Then again, few can identify Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, although some have become aware of her main rival, Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford.

"Doug Ford used to be the mayor I believe, right?" says Mirna Matthews, 22, who was unaware of the provincial election and confuses Ford's political background with that of his infamous late sibling, Rob Ford.

Matthews, however, has a more pressing issue on her mind: the pending birth of her second child. The mother of a three-year-old speaks of the need for a proper child-care centre and more housing for young families. Like many of her generation, she left the reserve to do Grade 8 elsewhere in Ontario and then again for high school.

"I had family living in Red Lake already, and I was staying with them," Matthews says. "But it was kind of hard because I missed my mom and dad. They ended up moving to Red Lake."

Matthews now flies regularly to Thunder Bay, Ont., or Sioux Lookout, Ont., for prenatal care. She's not particularly bothered at the prospect of having to spend weeks away from home to have her child.

"It's nice to get out of my community sometimes," Matthews says.

Kathleen Koostachin, 44, a teacher at Keewaytinook Internet High School, says it's no surprise most in town have little awareness of the June 7 election.

Fort Severn, like other remote communities, deals with the bleak realities of sexual and substance abuse, chronic housing shortages, the despair and even suicide of some young people, and the disruptive need to travel for routine medical care, she says.

But the language teacher is proud the band council resolved that students — especially the young ones in Grade 9 — no longer have to leave for high school. Instead, the innovative long-distance program she helped nurture for the past decade fills that gap. It took until 2012 for the internet high school to produce its first graduate but in 2015, there were two, and last year six.

"It's been challenging," Koostachin says. "(But) this is a program that works."

Among six students expected to earn their crucial diplomas this year is Chad Bluecoat, 22, who is doing math at a computer. He has aspirations to do accounting or finance at college.

"I prefer distance education. I can stay close to my community," Bluecoat says. "It's pretty important. I have to stay in touch with my roots. I like to go hunting and fishing and go out on the land and stay close to my family, too."

Bluecoat is upbeat about his generation. Many are working or going to school, he says. They have opportunities, and they're finding a way to reconcile traditional activities such as hunting and trapping with video games and Facebook.

"My age group is doing pretty good right now; my generation, they're not getting into too much trouble," Bluecoat says. "I'm pretty sure our culture can last, too, even with the dominant culture. We're going to keep maintaining our identity and continuing our culture and teaching the younger generations who we are and give them a sense of identity, too."

Over at the Northern store, which doubles as post office and the only gas station, Chief Paul Burke pays $2.65 a litre tax free to top up his truck before driving to where a $2.5-million solar farm is taking shape. It should be ready for testing in August, he says with determination.

The aim, Burke says, is that solar eventually combined with a wind farm can cut the price of power in half — and slash the million litres a year of barged-in fuel needed to keep the community moving.

"My goal is to make our generators go quiet," Burke says.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2018
The Canadian Press

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