On January 31, 2014 Greg Armstrong, Lawrence Neepin, Chris Shankaruk and Bramwell Ryan will be heading north to Shamattawa, a small First Nation’s community about 200 km from Gillam, Manitoba along a seasonal ice road.
In so many ways the isolated reservation is the end of the road. A small village of about 1,200 people dropped in the bush in an area bigger than France, Belgium and Switzerland combined.
And the road that dead-ends in Shamattawa is only open for weeks every year. The rest of the time getting in or out means buying expensive plane tickets.
This is the home of the Shamattawa First Nation, a people who once roamed freely throughout this vast wilderness. Today the community of proud and resourceful individuals is struggling to cope with isolation, despair, addictions and a lack of opportunities.
The numbers out of Shamattawa are grim. Suicide rates are off the charts; abuse, violence, theft and health problems are chronically high. Less than 5% of the community has a high school diploma and housing is terrible.
But people are more than statistics. And while it is easy to focus only on the despair and seeming hopelessness, a balanced story means looking beyond the numbers. A new school is being built. The community owns and operates a van that transports people to and from the nursing station free of charge. There are strong family ties and many trying to make their village safer. And although Manitoba is known for friendliness (according to its licence plates) for at least one man from Iran, Shamattawa is the centre of hospitality. “I have nothing but great memories from… Shamattawa. By far the friendliest and most welcoming people I have ever encountered. I have learned so much about myself and life in general from my three years [there].”
And the community’s recent gifts of generosity are more tangible. Kaska, the newest polar bear at the Winnipeg Zoo, comes from the Shamattawa region.
Still no one can paper over the huge challenges faced by isolated people connected to the world by ice roads that open fewer days every year due to climate change. In some ways they are like the people of Israel who sat by the rivers of Babylon and wept in Psalm 137. The people of Shamattawa sit by God’s River and weep. But like the Israelites, they don’t give up. They know life can be different. They know that despite living at the end of the road in one of the world’s harshest climates, things can change for the better. Things will change.
We are visiting Shamattawa in early February to gather evidence of the change that is coming. We are looking for moments of grace and hope, of joy and laughter and to find out why most of the stories from this community have sad endings. We’re not aiming to whitewash what life is like in this tiny village but we are looking for more than desperation.