Random musings from my week in Ontario’s North

It was drizzling and muddy when I arrived at the Moosonee airport on my way to Moose Factory on Monday.  There followed a short ride in a van to the edge of the river where I boarded a motorboat taxi that wound its way to the island.

The first thing I was asked was “Did you bring rubber boots?” I had not. The roads in this district are basically all gravel/dirt roads and when it rains they become muddy swamps. Luckily I was able to borrow some rubber boots and this proved a good omen since the weather quickly dried and I didn’t need them after my first day.

Moose Factory Hospital.  Surrounded by muddy roads.

 

img_3707An evening tour of Moose Factory by a colleague who has worked there for years took me to the dump to see the bears who were fattening up in preparation for their winter sleep. There was frost overnight and no heat in my accommodation. I ended up turning on the oven for a bit and sitting by the open door of the stove to warm up. An indoor campfire.

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The next day I ferried back to Moosonee then bounced to Fort Albany to Kasheshewan to Attawapiskat on a flight that sometimes barely got off the ground until it was time to land again. In the winter these communities are linked by ice roads that traverse the many waterways and frozen tundra.  Supplies are brought in over the ice roads and people travel out of the community then by skidoo or truck. During the summer and fall the only way into them is by plane.  Food and fuel and other goods are expensive since they all have to be either flown in or brought in by barge until the ground freezes and trucks can traverse them.

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Attawapiskat is flat and looks barren without any vegetation

Attawapiskat is an indigenous community of about 2000,  mostly Cree. Some speak only the Cree language. It has had a lot of press over the years for its poverty, mental health challenges, high youth suicide rates, drug and alcohol abuse and water and sanitation problems. There have also been allegations of money mismanagement by the local leaders.   Many of the people were friendly but reserved and hesitant to engage spontaneously.  Nevertheless, it felt foreign to me in many ways.

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Attawapiskat airport waiting room

At the “Atta” airport all baggage was searched by hand and we all had a pat down looking for smuggled drugs or alcohol. Attawapiskat has been designated a “dry” community for the past few months in an effort to curb abuse.  It took about 45 minutes to get my luggage cleared. I heard that, in the past few weeks,  one health worker was arrested and sent back south for possession of marijuana that he was taking for “medical” reasons. Zero tolerance. I wonder what they though of my Cooke’s coffee beans, grinder and bodum.

 

While I was there, news broke of an arrest of three people in Kingston who were part of a drug ring smuggling narcotics and whatever else to the James Bay West communities using the hospital shuttle flights like the one that I took during the week.

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“The Northern” is the main/only store in town, selling everything from bullets to overcoats to apples.  Fresh food is limited.  Lots of canned and processed food.  Good nutrition is hard to come by for these folks.   Notice everyone drives a 4-wheel drive truck as well.  Gas costs $2.99 a litre.

Lucky the weather in Atta was dry so I did not need my boots to walk around the little town. One of the Public Health nurses took me in a 4 wheel drive truck about ten kilometers out of the town to near where the river meets James Bay. The road reminded me of some of the muddy rural roads in the Massai Mara. The brush along the road was scrubby and tall grass. ( there are virtually no trees in Attawapiskat so it looks really barren.) A few times we skidded through mud, needing the 4-wheel drive to get through. An Africa flashback for me in Northern Canada! More than once, I was making mental comparisons of what I was seeing and experiencing to what I have encountered in Africa.

Once we got to the end of the road near the Bay, the vista was serene and washed in warm fall colors. In the spring, polar bears are sometimes seen here, I was told.

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Setting off on a new adventure

This morning I head off to the Ontario North to explore a new part-time “job” as a clinician in a remote indigenous community.  I am feeling both excited and apprehensive.  I suspect everyone feels that at the start of a new venture.  

I remember having the same mix of emotions when I set out for post-war Bosnia in March 1998.  I ended up there, on and off, for eleven years.  I still have a great fondness for many friends there and am planning a trip back in September 2019. 

The first time I went to Africa to tend to an itinerant gaggle of McGill students was similar.  Lots of unknowns. Was I up to the responsibility?  What will transpire while I am so far from home? What cultural differences will I encounter?

I know that the only way that I can fully understand this new challenge and know if I am suited to it is to do it.  So, I am heading off to Attawapiskat, a small James Bay community on the 53rd parallel tomorrow am and will be there for the week.

It will be an adventure and if I fit with the community and vice versa it will lead to a few days each month to provide Family Medicine clinic coverage where they are short on medical staff at the moment.

I have worked and traveled in vulnerable communities before but this is different. It is Canada.  Attawapiskat has had a lot of news coverage over the past few years because of the challenges to sanitation, housing and mental health problems for the youth in the community.  

Will I fit in? Will I be able to provide the medical care required and expected by the community?  I am eager to understand and respect the cultural differences between my upbringing (as offspring of white “settlers”) and their place as aboriginal people of the land.  

I have traveled in Africa several times when I have not seen another “white” face for a week, so I am used to being in the minority. It has always been a privileged minority, however.  I have been treated with respect and welcomed.  Will it be the same in a community that has suffered losses under the governance of my ancestors?

In respect for the people there, I will not blog about any of their personal stories without explicit permission but I plan to reflect on what I learn and experience and feel myself.

Buckle up your parka. 

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Some family history from the 1600’s.

This week I learned of a connection between my 8th great grandfather and a rock star.

John Bray II, my great, great, great, great, great, great, great great grandfather on my maternal grandfather’s side of my family ( that’s a lot of greats) was born in 1620 in Plymouth England.  This was the same year that the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth taking pilgrims to Cape Cod.  

Screenshot 2018-08-29 17.03.44In the early 1660’s John and his wife, Joan Pierce (1630), whom he married in 1653,  immigrated to North America along with their 1 year old son. They lived at Kittery Point in Maine where he worked as a shipwright. The first settlers had come to that area about 1607 so this was, indeed, the New World.

The home where the Bray family lived was a large, two and a half story frame house that faced the bay.  Although there have been lots of changes over the 350 years, the basic frame of that house still remain today, the oldest house in Maine.  

It was in Kittery that my 7th great grandmother, Joan Bray/Deering (1662-1708) was born and grew up. 

Old_Bray_House,_Kittery_Point,_ME-1The house remained much as it had been originally for many years,  with a central door, windows on either side and across the front and side dormers in the upper floor.  There was a chimney in the middle of the roof which suggests a central fireplace.  The house was large and apparently served as both a tavern and meeting place in the community in the 1670’s.  John was also a ferry operator during that time. 

There are several photos of the house on the internet, taken many years ago and it is a well documented piece of local architecture. No doubt most of the house has been renovated and materials replaced but its essence remains.

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Gradually people started to add to the house.  Little by little the house grew.  By the early 2000’s there were several oddly applied additions to the original front structure.

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Singer John Hall in the renovated Bray house at Kittery Point.

In 2007,  Daryl Hall of the rock duo Hall and Oates,  having an interest in old historic houses bought the home and property in an auction for about 1.7 million dollars.  He did further renovations and photos look like the inside was beautifully restored. He sold the property in 2012 for 1.9 million dollars.  John Bray’s will left the house to his wife and children in his will and the value of his estate when he died in 1689 was something just over 325 Pounds.  

Today the property has been encroached upon by other structures.  The original frame house forms the front part of a very large structure that clearly has had several additions to it over the years.  It is visible (and the front section identifiable like in old photos) on Google Earth.

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Vestiges of the original Bray House from the mid 1600’s remain although it has been altered and added to many times over 350 years.

I visited that district about five years ago and went to another area (Penobscot) where my fourth great grandfather, Robert Vardon, was involved with a naval battle aboard the 16-gun sloop, HMS Albany, in August/September 1779 during the American Revolution. The opposing American ground forces (led by Paul Revere) and several American ships were remarkably held at bay by three British ships. The British subsequently won the battle(s) and in the course of the fignting the Americans lost 470 men while the British lost only 13.  (  You can read more about that battle here.     http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/penobscot-expedition-americas-forgotten-military-disaster/  )

It was that Vardon grandfather that subsequently married Phebe Milliken (1767) who was the great great granddaughter of John Bray.  Robert and Phebe eventually relocated to what is now New Brunswick as United Empire Loyalists.

How amazing is it that I can trace these records back so far.  Something made possible by the internet and unimaginable only 30 years ago.  

Now for a little classic ’80’s Hall and Oates.