Students practice whitewater safety and rescue. (Photo: Thomas Hall)
The 11 students walk back to their canoes and, with teenaged efficiency, follow instructions while the four guides, Miller, Jody Mitchell, me, and Alex Aggamaway, a local guide from Marten Falls First Nation, urge them to hurry. It’s 5:30 and though the sun sets closer to 10:00, the bugs will soon be out.
The group is the Matawa Learning Centre’s Winisk River Expedition, a Grade 12 experiential education course that followed a roughly 130 kilometre traditional First Nation’s canoe route from Nabinamik to Webequie. The course, which was the first of its kind in the area, was funded by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada and delivered by the Matawa Learning Centre, a school for students from the remote Matawa communities in Northern Ontario.
“I paddled the Winisk five years ago, guiding students from Southern Ontario who were earning a high school credit on the journey,” Miller, a wilderness guide and the one who conceived and led the trip, says. “Talking to 16-year-olds in Webequie back then, I realized they didn’t have that opportunity even though they lived on the river. I didn’t think that was right.”
The expedition began in Nibinamik, about 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay on July 20. After a day spent organizing equipment the group gathered on ‘grandmother point’ where the expedition was blessed by elders and members were given fistfuls of tobacco. We were told to hold it in our left hands and then asked to sprinkle it on land or in the water as offerings to protect the community and the expedition.
The ceremony ended with a healing walk around the 200-person community, which has been directly affected by the recent spate of suicides in Northern Ontario First Nations. The challenges facing Nibinamik are not new to the students, two of whom are from Nibinamik while the rest come from Eabametoong, Marten Falls and Webequie, all communities affected by the crisis.
“It’s a difficult time for many of the communities up here, so beyond the course I hope this was also a chance for students to get away and just have some fun while remaining on the land that is their traditional home,” says Miller.
The following morning the expeditioners slid from the muddy riverbank and into the Winisk’s current, following the centuries old route through the glacier rasped landscape of large lakes and the brief but swift rapids connecting them.