By Israel Cooper, 2016 Participant
Youth Ambassador of Reconciliation Program
I believe that God has a plan for everyone, but sometimes that fact alone doesn’t feel very comforting. I came across the Youth Ambassador of Reconciliation Program when I was struggling with God and his plans for me. I had just graduated from university and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my degree, or if I wanted to work in my degree’s field at all. I had decided to just take a year off to “figure it out” when I heard about this opportunity to go live among the First Nations in Kitchenuhmayoosib Inninuwag (KI), a remote reserve in northern Ontario. This had nothing to do with my degree, but reconciliation with Indigenous people is something I am eager to take part in, any way that I can. I was excited to learn first-hand from another culture and to experience a way of life different from my own. I could also come back from the experience and help spread awareness of the huge disparity in living conditions between Indigenous peoples and other Canadians with better knowledge of the situation.
The trip to KI taught me about perseverance, personal strength, and service. One community member said, “What is spoken from the heart is more important than what is spoken from the head”, particularly resonated with me. Many times I have felt that I was too emotional or sensitive while making decisions, especially as a woman. To hear that my feelings do have value and that this community pays particular attention to them was very welcome and comforting.
A message that seemed to be reiterated throughout the trip was, “Take care of yourself first so that you can take care of others.” During my time in university, I had been learning how and when I am able to take care of my friends and family, so this message really connected with me.
Sometimes having a story and purpose seems the most important thing in life, but the most powerful testimonies and personal stories I heard on the trip were all about serving others. When I speak with groups after coming back from my trip, I try to communicate that we can’t fix anyone, but we can stand by them. People need to be ready to take the initiative to help themselves and we can be there as a support once that decision is made. We can be facilitators or advocates for them, but not the problem-solvers. Only you know what you need.
Everyone has an impact in our relationships as non-Indigenous Canadians with the Indigenous peoples of Canada. No matter who you are, how educated you are, who you know, what kind of family you come from, or how much money or time you have, there is always significance in what you can do for someone else. One of my favourite people from the trip to tell people about is Freddie the bus driver. He cares so much about the kids of KI, and always said that even if he didn’t get to drive the bus again, he wanted to help them in some way. He made sure everyone made it to a safe place at night, no matter how many extra hours it took for him to drive the bus (which was only one of two working buses on the reserve). He also knew more about the kids and families living on the reserve than most of the other community members I talked with, including teachers and band members. Meeting people like Freddie and learning from them was one of the most valuable parts of trip to KI for me.