The graduation trip

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Elementary school graduating classes are heading out on special trips all over the country. I remember what a big deal that tour was for my classmates and I when we visited Toronto and Niagara Falls. Up to that point I had not ventured out much into the outside world. Most of my experience had to do with my home in the remote community of Attawapiskat.

Suddenly, as part of a reward for sticking with school, we were flown out of the north and driven in a bus along major southern highways. It was so exciting to finally experience first hand what I had seen on television as the modern, southern world. Just the fact that I could leave my remote home and move freely along a road to places far away was amazing.

Every stop at a place on the highway was exciting as I could order burgers, fries, milk shakes and sodas. Once we hit the city, I was shocked by how big it was. My friends and I had sore necks from straining to look up at the skyscrapers in downtown Toronto. Everything was so fast and busy. One thing that surprised me was that people on the streets did not look into each other’s eyes. There was little or no acknowledgement of anyone meeting each other on the sidewalks, in the restaurants or the subway system. It was as though people were in a trance.

The city was overwhelming. Everything was hectic and that made me feel very nervous. There were all kinds of rules to follow in simply crossing a street, waiting for lights to change or ordering a meal in a restaurant. There was a stress to all this abundance that made me feel anxious and a little helpless, if not frightened.

Our school was partnered with one in Mississauga, where we stayed with families in homes filled everything anyone could want, but with more unfamiliar rules. The families we met were from a variety of backgrounds. We were exposed to new cultures including Indian, Pakistani, Chinese and Caribbean.

There was unimaginable abundance. The Eaton Centre was full of shops that housed all my dream fashions in clothes, hats and shoes. The electronic stores were full of gadgets that I yearned for. Restaurants were everywhere and there were so many different types of food that I had never known about.

The reality that made me feel uncomfortable was that it all had to do with money. If you had money in this outside world and you were smart, successful and capable, then everything was fine. However, if you ran out of money or if you could not fit in, then it could be that your fate would be that of the many homeless people I saw begging on the streets. In the middle of all of this luxury, I saw many destitute Native people merely trying to survive. None of that made sense and it scared me. I discovered that this magical world of wealth and luxury was not available to everyone. It made me wonder if I would ever want to actually live in this type of world.

Even though things were dysfunctional and difficult back home, I never felt as though I was on my own. There were family and friends and if times were hard we always knew that we could live from the land and have a meal of goose, moose and fish. Everything we needed to survive we had in the land. If there was no money, we still managed to live.

I have learned that it is possible to live in the outside world and still keep a connection to the land. I have discovered how to survive and deal with all of the demands in the complex outside world. Happily, I also learned how to live a sober life and avoid the traps of alcoholism and drug addiction. Without my sobriety I would never have been able to live a good life in the outside world.

Over the past two decades I have travelled much of the world, seen amazing cities and sites and enjoyed many different cultures. I have discovered that most of the world’s wealth and power rests in the hands of very few ultra-rich people. More than half of the world population lives in terrible conditions with little shelter, insufficient nutrition, a lack of clean water and under the rule of tyrannical governments. That uneasy sense that I felt on my graduation trip so many years ago was in fact an epiphany. And it haunts me still.

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