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Alexandra Shimo and First Nations leaders launch non-profit to help youth on reserves

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(photo: Michael Banasiak)

(photo: Michael Banasiak)

Following the release of Alexandra Shimo’s memoir, Invisible North: The Search for Answers on a Troubled Reserve (Dundurn Press), last fall, the author wondered what else she could do to help a First Nations community struggling with poverty and the legacy of residential schooling.

“A lot of these impoverished issues are competing for the same very small bunch of funds. There’s not enough money to provide even basic services, so an issue can be covered in the media, and yet five years later not much has changed,” Shimo says. “The stories I was seeing were that of ‘We’ve been forgotten about and are largely invisible to the Canadian public.’ I felt if I could use the Invisible North for change, any attempt would be worthwhile.”

When Shimo brought her manuscript – which relates four months spent on the northern Ontario reserve of Kashechewan and has received nods from both the B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-fiction and the RBC Taylor Prize – to the community’s chief, Leo Friday, for final approval, the two spoke about how the book could effect change in Kashechewan, especially for its youth, who have a high suicide rate. Shimo and several First Nations leaders eventually decided to found a non-profit organization called Paddling With the Cree, which takes Kashechewan’s young people on a wilderness trip with leaders and elders to engage them with nature and with their cultural roots.

“Some people I talked to had never been to the bush before. They live in this one-kilometre-square reserve surrounded by wildlife, but it appears they’re suffering from nature deficit disorder,” Shimo says. “It’s almost like living in a city, but without facilities. And they don’t have access to what has sustained that community for generations, which is the forest. … [Friday] came up with this idea to take them back to traditions, on an adventure on traditional trails.”

The inaugural canoe trip took place Aug. 6, with 18 youth travelling 319 kilometres up the Albany River. The trip was such a success that two more are in-demand for summer 2017. More than $8,000 has been raised online to cover trip costs after the fact, but Shimo says the organization has much more fundraising to do before the forthcoming trips can become a reality. She also hopes the initiative can expand into other First Nations communities facing similar issues.

“They are all suffering from the inter-generational legacy of residential schools; it’s not just impoverishment, it’s also that legacy. Learning more about the history made me feel like I have more of a social responsibility to try and mitigate some of the ongoing impacts that are affecting the children,” Shimo says.