People & Culture

Pandemic Perspectives: Finding peace amongst the birch

Being unplugged and on the land gave my family the chance to reset 

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Placing the Pandemic in Perspective is a multimedia project to collect and share how Canadians’ experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic were — and continue to be — shaped by place. Visit the project website to read more stories and add your own. 

I was looking forward to 2020. I had a busy year planned teaching at traditional moosehide tanning camps across our Indigenous nations. Overnight, they were all cancelled. In a matter of days, the pandemic took away the dream life I had been building for a decade.

I had nothing to fall back on. I panicked and took on small contracts to keep my family afloat.

I am a single parent, with three children who were 5, 12 and 14 at the time.

I was overwhelmed with work, home schooling and parenting, all of them taking place in our little home with no yard in the middle of a city. We still have holes in the walls from a day of indoor skateboard tricks. We found ourselves all on screens. My internet bill soared.

I watched the news constantly hoping to learn something of our situation — a timeline, an end, the nature of viruses and of immunity. Rather than giving me comfort, the information overload took a toll on my mental health. I knew that, as a family, we needed more space and to disconnect from the hum of everything.

I packed us up, bought provisions and left Yellowknife to set up camp on the south shore of the Dehcho River, an hour out of Fort Simpson. The sun rose from behind a bend to the east and set through the birch trees to the west.

Our days were full. Wake up and make a fire, get dressed quickly, warm the tent up so my boys wake up in warmth. Make another fire, put the coffee on, watch the sun rise, listen to the wind and birds. Adjust camp, get firewood, try to do school work. Maybe just being on the land and

splitting wood every day is a good enough education for my guys for now. What if just being together as a family is good enough of an experience for now.

Thousands of songbirds flew above us. One day, I saw a bright yellow tanager on a visit to our open-air makeshift outhouse.

We drank birch water.

On one of our last mornings drinking bush coffee in the early spring sun, my dad reflected on how rare it is for us to take this amount of time to be together on the land. For five weeks, we synced up with the natural rhythms around us, gave our minds and bodies a rest from the crazy world. We emerged reset, eager to catch up on shows we had missed, ready to get back to our Zoom classes and meetings.

Watch Melaw Nakehk’o’s short film documenting her experience for the National Film Board at


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This story is from the March/April 2023 Issue

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