By Matt Kok
I live in Canada. To our North lies the vastness of the Arctic Ocean, with its icy landscapes and crystal blue waters. To our west and east lie the depths of the Pacific and Atlantic and to our south lies the epitome of First World Countries. I work with kids and teens who live in third world conditions. In our country, we call these kids, teens, and this entire culture of people, “First Nations”.
In the United States, they are referred to as “Native Americans.” They are the original landowners of North America. They were the “savages”, the Indians, the villagers, the travelers, the hunters and gatherers. And they are the abused, the neglected, the hopeless and the hurt.
Our first Prime Minister once declared that “there would not be an Indian problem in the future” because “there will be no Indians”. From that moment on, an effort has been made to assimilate, control and “deal with” the First Nations Peoples of Canada.
We have refused them the rights to their native lands. We have refused them their upbringing and their spirituality. We have neglected their children and forced them to leave their homes, institutionalizing them and criticizing their culture. We have made their traditions illegal, in the name of our God. We have abused them physically, emotionally and sexually in “Residential Schools”, run by some Christian denominations in our country. We have stowed them away in corners called “reserves” and have historically made it illegal for a First Nations person to leave one. And while some laws have changed over the years, one thing has remained consistent: we have forgotten about them.
I remember, many years ago, watching the news and hearing of First Nations teenagers destroying their lives through sniffing gas. I wanted to go and help them. Never did I realize that I would one day end up working on a reserve in Northern Ontario. The reserve in which I work is called Aroland, and it is one of the better reserves in Northern Ontario – mainly because it is accessible by road. Most of the reserves further North of Aroland can only be accessed by air, to which their is a hefty cost. It is in one of these communities that I have recently heard of the suicides of two pre-teen girls and one teenaged boy – ages 12 and 14. It is the same community where many of the other teens are found numbing their minds on gas fumes. I am not sure what is more tragic, kids dying in Africa through AIDS, or kids killing themselves in Canada through hopelessness.
It is amazing the comparison I make between Aroland and Mexico, or Uganda. There is corruption at the hands of the third world leaders (the presidents of countries, and the chiefs of First Nation reserves), and free handouts by guilt-ridden Western countries that combine to create such complacency in the third world mindset. It is a complacency that is passed down from generation to generation, as the money pours in from the more wealthy countries.
The government of Canada continues to refuse to apologize to the First Nations People who were abused in the church-run residential schools (isn’t it amazing that we once thought the removal and assimilation of another culture was the “Godly” thing to do?). Instead, Canada’s way of apologizing for past wrongs to her First Nations Peoples is to provide compensation to the wronged. Our government tends to throw money at the “problem”, hoping that it will simply go away.
In my mind, this has created the culture of complacency and dependency. It is the same thing that happens in Africa, in a continent where I have heard several pastors from many countries say, “We do not need Western money.” Perhaps what is needed, more than any amount of money that can be doled out, is love, respect, and the valuing and validating of a culture we do not fully understand. The same can be said for any culture and country in which one serves.
That is our goal in Aroland, to love and serve the next generation, the First Nation kids and the teens. They are a people rich in tradition and spirituality. But they are often misrepresented and ridiculed by white people. We simply do not fully understand. Our history books tell us of peace pipes and truces, yet our secret past is one of shame. Our lack of knowledge leads us to ignorance. So, what can we do in response? We can at least try to understand. We can try to care. We can recognize the humanity in those whom we have forgotten: the third world that exists inside our first world.
Matt Kok is from Ontario, Canada and used to work in youth ministry near Vancouver.