To Be Here Together

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credit: Libby MacPhail

By Liza Chatterjee

For the four months of summer 2018, I am working as an intern in the University of Alberta’s Engage North program. This program, which partners students with different Indigenous communities in the North has brought me to Chateh, Alberta. Chateh is a community of approximately 1,500 people in the northwest corner of Alberta, part of the Dene Tha’ Nation and part of Treaty Eight.

In this internship, my role is to promote community health and I do this in a variety of capacities. Working out of the Dene Tha’ Health Centre, I have compiled statistics on emergency services, helped facilitate screening clinics, and given life skills presentations to youth. I also tend the community garden and participate in evening recreation. This summer is rich with varied experiences that take me to the heart of the community’s life.

Socially, Chateh seems like a lively network of extended families. These are some of the warmest people I have ever met, and I have been honoured to join them at birthday parties, funerals, and bonfires. I have also taken in part in many cultural experiences such as tea dance and hand games. The dynamics of a small community are very different. One way this has struck me is that the community does not rely on street addresses for directions but common landmarks, and often, family names (“it’s behind so-and-so’s house”). I am growing accustomed to the way that everyone’s lives are common business here, the way that people wave when they meet on the road.

Life here is defined both by a proximity to the boreal forest and a remoteness from most everything else. Hunting and other ways of living off the land still feature prominently in most people’s lives. In my time here, I have helped prepare dry moose meat and enjoyed mint tea. I’ve slapped away ants and mosquitoes while I picked bag after bag of saskatoon berries. In the mornings, I’m awoken by the sounds of birds and free-roaming horses. The neighbour girls brought wildflowers for me and my roommate.

Having grown up in the city, I now think it cosmopolitan to walk to the grocery store. Here, the nearest grocery store is a 105 km drive, as is the nearest hospital. The nearest movie theatre is in Manning, an additional 200 km. My perception of distance has grown more generous. Anything within 5 hours driving is ‘close’.

Beyond the changes to the pace of my life and my physical surroundings, my Stretch is forcing me to reflect on several big questions. For much of the last three months, I have been living alone. This is giving me time to read and write, and being away from my family and friends encourages me to turn to local people for conversation. I’m gaining invaluable lessons about culture shock, the implications of colonialism, and life in remote communities. I’m thinking about what it means to be in a place where residential schools are a living memory, where the rest of Canada can still feel far away in a way beyond geography. I’m also navigating the dynamics of being a visitor in a community accustomed to transient professionals from the South. It would be cursory to say that I now have a straightforward understanding of Truth and Reconciliation, or even how this summer will impact me in the future.

Regardless, I feel deeply lucky to have been welcomed this summer by the North. Whether as a nurse, a settler Canadian, or a human being, I am certain that I will be moved and guided by my time in Chateh. I am grateful for the answers given, and the  questions raised, as I learn more about what it means to be here together.

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