Friday, September 12, 2014

The Lansdowne Letters: Neskantaga

So, in my last Lansdowne House post,
I decided to rename my Northern series
The Lansdowne Letters
instead of the more despairing 
Human Refuse.

Then, I sat down to write today's post.
I was struggling with where to go next,
so I googled Lansdowne House yet again
looking for something, anything, for direction.

There is little information on-line
about Lansdowne House ~
It is invariably described as a remote community
located in the northern reaches of Ontario
with fly-in thrown in sometimes for good measure.

And just try to find a map you can use legally!

Location of Lansdowne House
Look in the upper third of the map.
Follow the Attawapiskat River inland from the left tip of the largest island in James Bay.
Halfway along the river you will see a large, fat Attawapiskat Lake.
Lansdowne House is in the middle of that lake.
Click here for a zoomed-in view.

I'm sure I've read before
that Lansdowne House is now often referred to 
as Neskantaga First Nation.
But it didn't sink in until I was struggling with this post.
I chuckled as I read about Neskantaga:
Still remote,
still northern reaches.

So, on a whim, I googled Neskantaga
for the first time,
and the results plunged me into despair.

Some things don't change.
Human refuse is still human refuse.

Even a child recognizes 
when people are treated like refuse;
and a passionate, idealistic girl 
can stir up a lot of trouble
for the adults 
peopling her small world.

You can shut someone up,
bury a story,
hide the truth,
but if things don't change,
it's bound to bubble up out of the muskeg
at some point in the future.

You see, today there is a suicide crisis 
in remote, fly-in Neskantaga 
in the northern reaches of Ontario.

In 2013 twenty-seven young people attempted suicide,
and seven committed suicide in a twelve month period.
Now three more have taken their lives.
Community leaders have said that the suicides
are the result of the fourth world living conditions
in Neskantaga First Nation. 

I read the litany of wrongs:
lack of housing, clean water, food security,
and adequate health care.

And I remember.

for starters. 

I remember the nurse Mike Flaherty
teaching us a lesson on sanitation, 
while sketching a map of Lansdowne House
on the blackboard in our tiny school.
Indian and white,
we children watched his white lines grow to depict
the long peninsula sticking out into Lake Attawapiskat,
the Father's Island,
the Hudson Bay Post and the nursing station,
the Indian log houses,
and my family's home in the forestry building.

Sketched Map of Lansdowne House
Drawing by Donald Blair MacBeath
© M L (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue

I can hear the painful scratch of the chalk
as Mike marked waterholes on the map:
those of the Indians and ours,
and with every hard white X he scrawled,
I can still hear Mike say, "Death.  Death.  Death."

Path to Our Waterhole
Painting by Donald Blair MacBeath
© M L (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue

I don't have to contend 
with waterholes now.

No more climbing down 
the snow-packed hill
with my two five-gallon buckets.

No more hacking through the ice
with the long-handled ice chopper
to open our waterhole 
in the subzero cold.

No more lugging the heavy, slopping buckets 
back up the hill and into our house.

No more emptying and straining the ice-chunky water
through layers of cheesecloth into 
our twenty-five gallon water barrel.

No more watching the tip of the eye dropper
as I carefully add one drop of Javex to the barrel.

Yup, my harried Mom 
trusted ten-year-old, turning eleven me 
with purifying our drinking water,
so our family wouldn't get sick 
from the bad water in Lansdowne House.
Or die.

You'd think after half a century
things would be better.

The conditions in the North 
are not a new story.

They're an old, grim story.
My chapter was lightened a little 
by a loving and fun family
and the incredible human beings we met,
shimmers of light piercing the night.

I just have to wonder.
Anybody going to listen this time?

Northern Lights Near Hudson Bay
wikimedia ~ Ansgar Walk


  1. Suicide is reaching epidemic proportions on all northern reserves. Depression and despair. Unsustainable communities.

    1. Hi Debra. It's despairing to me. There is fast suicide and slow, and I've known both in the North. The history of the treatment of native peoples in the Americas is beyond shameful and tragic. It is soul crushing. I don't know that it can ever be made right, but surely, it's got to be made better.

  2. Replies
    1. Hi Terry! It is a heartbreaking situation. Thanks for reading my post, even though it is sad. They won't always be sad, I promise! On a lighter note, it's great to see the sun this morning after yesterday's light snow! Take care!

  3. Wow, never knew it was so high. That is awful indeed. Still to this day being treated like that.

    1. Hi Pat! I was stunned too. The chief lost his son just before the end of last year. Moonias ~ I probably knew his father or (more likely) grandfather. These events make me more determined than ever to plod on with my manuscript. It's odd to think I've googled everything in the world associated with Lansdowne House, but somehow I had never done Neskantaga. Lack of clean water was just a small piece of the deplorable conditions in the North. Have a good one!

  4. I hear Alaska has a similar problem. No idea if it has anything to do with local Native Americans though

    1. Hi Adam. I haven't looked into Alaska. I do know that the Navajo Nation in the Four Corners area is struggling with difficult problems, but I haven't that suicide is one of them. Take care!

  5. Wow...that is terrible. Suicide is a terrible thing...and in those numbers. Loss of life like that just...*sigh*

  6. Thanks for your heartfelt comment. Suicide is such a sad and desperate action. Have a good one!

  7. Such despair at such a young age for you and your family to witness. I almost feel embarrassed and ashamed because even though my family history is entirely different with it's own scary moments, I had running water and all the other things needed to survive in a healthy upbringing.


    1. A lot of us face difficult situations growing up, Ron. And you may have had all the comforts of lovely, sheltered Wolfville, but you lost your dad so young! Hardly anything could be more devastating. I was strong ~ quite proud of my muscles then ~ oh the glory days! LOL! I think you will be surprised as my story develops! I'm getting a little better at approaching it. It's just been hard to confront some things!


Thank you for your comments! I appreciate them very much.