by Brianne Benness
“Do you know what we call white girls?” shouts one of the hickey-covered teenagers loitering outside of the Northern Store. This is quickly followed by a few words in Cree and some teenage cackling. We frown at each other uneasily and wander back to our canoes so we can cross the river back to our campsite.
We are 15 years old and we’ve just paddled 750 miles from the small town of Pickle Lake, Ontario. Not in a day, of course, but in five weeks. This is only the second town where we’ve stopped, the second time that we’ve been around other people.
The first was an Ojibwa town called Neskantaga, or we called it an Ojibwa town then. This isolated Anishinabe community had recently packed up and moved 10 km down the river from Lansdowne House. The original site was still the home of the Northern Store and the white guy who ran it. We noticed some scratches and dents on the store’s heavy front door and asked if a bear had tried to break in.
“Oh that?” said the storekeeper. “Some drunk natives tried to break in with an axe one night.” We learn that in this dry northern community, you can’t sell yeast or hairspray because it can too easily be used as an intoxicant. We learn that some locals once fermented their own orange juice and when it was confiscated it turned out to be something like 180 proof; a coma, basically.
Of course, this was before I knew much about alcohol, maybe before I’d ever been drunk. Before it would occur to me that a white hermit in a town with no road access who sold goods to native people at a wildly inflated rate might not be the most scrupulous of truth-tellers.
When we got to Neskantaga, we marvelled at the Ojibwa lettering on the street signs and the satellite dishes on all of the vinyl prefab houses. We wondered what people did here. Why did they stay? How did they live? How alcoholic was their moonshine, really?
This was the summer after grade ten, which means I’d already taken the last Canadian history class I’d ever take. We’d all just taken it. We knew about the residential schools and the treaties and the reservations and we were starting to learn about the substance abuse rates. We weren’t all white but we were all colonizers. We didn’t know about Turtle Island or colonial narratives or how ignorant our language choices were.
We were just paddling across the province, really, and Neskantaga happened to be one of or mail pickup points. This summer was about us, and our adventure. The 180-proof-orange-juice story was one that I would go on to tell for years as a funny anecdote about life in a dry northern native community. There was that time on trip when our canoe got sucked into a hole at the base of some rapids, and that time on trip when the Northern Store guy essentialized an entire people for their resourcefulness in overcoming prohibition.
By the time we got to Attapaiskat, we’d pretty much forgotten that the rest of the world existed. This was 35 days into trip: 35 days without showering, 35 days of dried food, 35 days of singing American Pie and the Hurricane for hours because they were the longest songs that we knew.
This is before I’d learn that Attawapiskat’s high school had been indefinitely closed because of toxic mould. Before we’d all learn about the inadequate housing in this small community when they declared a state of emergency and made international headlines. Before I really understood that communities like this are not an anomaly in Canada.
This is even before we met a German ex-pat who took us on a pickup truck tour around the community. Before we saw the substance abuse treatment centre that had recently opened for all of the gas huffers. Years later in architecture school I tried to use this centre as a design precedent and could barely find a record.
We did know that Attawapiskat was the final point on the James Bay ice road. We knew that it was a theoretically accessible place at least a few months out of the year. In the airport when we were flying out, we saw flyers promoting shopping trips to Sudbury. Need a new pair of jeans? The closest mall is just a short flight away.
But don’t forget, this trip was about us. We tried to imagine growing up in such a small, isolated place. We tried to imagine what you do with such a life. No education, no jobs, no prospects. This was a theoretical exercise, of course, since our parents had all paid over a grand for us to do this trip and we were all on track to go to university.
So we go to the Northern Store to buy cookies. I’ve never been more conscious of my outsider status, of being a little bit leered at. For being white, for being a stranger.
“Do you know what we call white girls?” shouts one of the hickey-covered teenagers loitering outside of the Northern Store. This is before I’d learn about whiteness, about privilege, about social location, about systems of oppression. The being-called-out-as-a-white-girl story is one that I will go on to tell for years to illustrate how much I know about feeling uncomfortable in my own skin. I’ll talk about the hickeys as an essential fact of these bored, isolated teenagers.