January 11th, 2017
Dear Mr. Angus,
I do not know if you have the capacity to respond to this message. I will try to send it through various means of communication, in hopes that you hear my voice. As a Caucasian-Male with a privileged education, I try to be careful of how I use my voice. Too often in this nation men with similar backgrounds to mine have used their voices to speak over others, and belittle the ideas and notions of those who did not have the fortune of my background, or ethnicity. But today I hope that my voice is heard not for my own benefit but for that of my students.
My name is Kurtis Schmitz and, I am a secondary teacher at Aglace Chapman Education Centre, a school located some 500 km Northwest of Thunder Bay, in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, also known as K.I. or Big Trout Lake. I write to you today because my community and its neighbouring community of Wapekeka are in crisis. Two young girls, both only 12 years old, have passed away by means of their own hand. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon occurrence in Northern communities like ours, and has been a news bulletin on the front page of CBC Indigenous far too many times.
I am aware of your political career, and the good things you have done and said for First Nations in Ontario, for the Indigenous peoples of Canada and for equal education. With this knowledge, I write to you as a teacher fighting for the future of his students. When I look at my students, I see not only who they are today, but also the potential of who they may someday be. Whether they choose to be doctors, nurses, trades people or construction workers, teachers, or lawyers, I see into the future, when I look in their eyes. This Monday morning, however, I stood in front of my class and expected to see that hope for the future and the contempt for homework that I usually see. But I didn’t see it. It was as if a dense fog rolled in and my capacity to see their futures was hidden. A room that is usually filled with laughter, and the conversations of weekend exploits had fallen silent. When I looked at their faces, I could not see that hope. The news of loss spreads quickly in a small community; it takes only a few hours, even minutes for every community member to hear of stories like these. It was not long before I heard about the tragedy that had unfolded the previous day; by the time I could muster a response to the situation, the worst possible scenario struck: another child had taken her life. In the North, in terrible times like these, the school can be a haven for the students, a safe place that will not judge you for your grief, or force you to keep a stiff upper lip, but it is a communal space to come together, to be consoled, and if need be talk to a trained professional, teacher or friend. But often a trained counselor is not available, and can only come once every six weeks to my school. So it is up to friends, family, and teachers to advise on top of our regular jobs and responsibilities.
The proud communities of Wapekeka and K.I. are devastated by these losses of innocent life, and are looking for some reason for this tragedy, and maybe looking for someone to blame. But instead of looking at themselves, or each other, I think they should be looking South. That blame falls on everyone in this Nation’s shoulders. That blame belongs to all Canadians, including those who sit in the seats around you, Mr. Angus. Those are the people who actively decide to give my school and my students less funding than any other provincial school system in Canada. They decide that my students, their lives and their futures are not worth the same amount as students in the public school system. They decide that because my students were not born in Ottawa, Vancouver or Montreal, they do not deserve to be heard or listened to. How many young boys and girls must we lose before your colleagues in the House of Commons realize that reacting to tragedy is not a sustainable practice? We must get out in front of these issues, we must ensure that all schools in the North are staffed with certified mental health professionals, and not just for the weeks after a tragedy, but in the dark hours before these desperate acts.
I teach a Canadian History course to grade nine and ten students, and in the last few weeks we have been covering civil rights movements in Canada and the U.S., following the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr., Viola Desmond, Chief Dan George, and Elijah Harper. How do I explain to my students that the fight for equal rights has not yet been won? How do I explain that they have inherited a fight that they might not ever win in their lifetimes? That they are not considered worthy of the same treatment of sons and daughters of those to the South?
I ask you, Mr. Angus, I beseech you to continue speaking out. Do not rest! You have been put into a position of privilege, you must use that position to save not just my students, but every young man and woman who loses a friend due to the apathy of a country that is more than willing to overlook them. I want my students to know that there are people who care about their futures, I want them to know that they are not alone on a fly-in reserve in Northern, Ontario. I want you to tell Mr. Trudeau, that sunny ways should not be reserved for a select group of Canadians. That the sun still shines in the North, though on days like today it is hard to feel its warmth. I need you to put the hope back into my students’ eyes; I need you to put the hope back in their teacher’s eyes.
Thank you for reading this,