From time to time I play bass with ElizaBeth Hill. She’s a First Nations artist originally from Six Nations in Brantford. She’s travelled extensively with her music to places like Japan and Easter Island as well as time writing in Nashville. I met her relatively early in my return to music. Through ElizaBeth I’ve been able to experience First Nations culture through performances at different reserves, Pow Wows and even the National Conference last summer.
In 2013 she asked if I would be interested in going North to play some shows. She now lives in Thunder Bay so that would be our jumping off point. The original plan was to have gone in the Winter but thankfully the tour ended up happening in June. Sure there were lots of biting insects around but I think I’d rather that than load gear in -30 degree temperatures let alone land on a frozen gravel runway in the middle of winter.
My tour began with an early flight out of London via Toronto to get to Thunder Bay to join Elizabeth and Paul Langille. My only concern was whether my bass would follow me or not since I had to pick up a rental car as soon as I got to Thunder Bay and head West on a 4.5 hour drive on Highway 17 to get to Pic Mobert First Nation, the site of our first gig. I had just insured the bass so I was not worried about that but finding a rental in town might be tricky.
My introduction to Northern Ontario wildlife happened about an hour into my drive to Pic Mobert. I came over a crest in the road to find a Canadian dinosaur crossing the road. I had to jump on the brakes and my heart rate went up just a tad as a moose crossed highway 17 in front of me. That got my attention. For the rest of the tour my eyes were looking very closely at side of the road for more moose. In the end we saw 4 more moose, a bear and a fox.
The gig at Pic Mobert went fairly well. It’s a while since we played together so we had a bit of rust to shake off. Either way it’s always great to play music live. We stayed the night in Pic and then it was back to Thunder Bay and then on to Sioux Lookout where we would stay the night before heading to Pikangikum by plane.
At Sioux Lookout airport we met Eric, one of the trauma team/health workers who fly into Pikangkum to work with the community. He was quite happy to make fun of Paul and I as we sat in a very small plane with no idea what we were heading in to. “Are you ready? It’s going to get bumpy!” “Do you like roller coasters?” I could see out the front of the plane as we lined up for take off. The runway looked very, very short and at the end of it all I could see was an embankment and a row of trees. But that little plane throttled up very impressively and used very little of the runway to get in the air. The view from the air was stunning. I feel much more Canadian when I can see lakes, trees and the Canadian Shield.
I’d have to admit that I was a more than a little concerned about what I’d find when I went to Pikangikum. My only experience of a reserve like that was what I read in news papers and magazines so it was important to me to see things with my own eyes. I’d read that Pikangikum has the highest suicide rate in the world. What would I find?
I was only there for 24 hours but it was overwhelming. On a tour around the area Elizabeth showed us where people were living. There’s was one home were the deceased, many through suicide, were buried in the yard. There was a stark contrast between the new homes going up and the older houses. I hope the new ones will still look good a few years from now.
The enduring memory will be visiting the school and meeting the different grades. In a population of approximately 2500 there are around 700 in school. The youngest kids were like little kids anywhere. They were laughing and running around without a care in the world seemingly oblivious to their surroundings. The older kids were completely different. The didn’t seem happy at all and I can certainly understand why. It must be incredibly difficult when there seems to be no way out even if someone wanted to go. A return flight from Pikangikum to Sioux Lookout is around $500 so even if you wanted to go, buying the ticket would be really difficult for most.
What I did see in Pikangikum are people like Eric who are working hard to help move the community forward even if the odds seem to be heavily stacked against him. There are also the school teachers, most of whom are recent graduates from universities down south including a music teacher who is from London. They are trying their best to make a difference as well. But I’m left thinking that if I was a politician, no matter whether I was blue, red, orange or green, I wouldn’t know what to do to fix things at a place like Pikangikum.