On our last day with the children of Mish we drove them the 8 kilometers from the village and through the cemetery to the beach one last time; an end of the week celebration tinged with sadness at what that meant.
The children ran from our cars, not to the beach at first, but to visit the small white wooden crosses marking graves, looking for those of people they knew, pointing them out to one another. Death seems an all too frequent a visitor to the families of Mish.
"My auntie's here; she burned," said one little girl. Her tone was as matter of fact as if burning is as normal a cause of death as old age. But then, on the reserve, tragically, it is. Buildings burn often and the people in them die.
Down on the beach the first children to have arrived were already shrieking with joy. Their laughter carried up to the hilltop where I stood, at a grave from which a young man's face smiled from a photo: Gary "Neesh" Fox; he should have been the promise of the future for his community--"Top Student Phys Ed," "Most Improved Social Sciences." He died at 21 in a fire.
My heart broke and I am angry at the level of acceptance that this happens. This is not okay. It is shameful that in our proud country, people have no choice but to live in flimsy inadequate housing in which they struggle to keep warm in the bitter cold of winter.
In Missabay Community School, our friend, Isaiah Roundhead, pointed out one of the banners hanging among the other richly coloured hand sewn flags and banners representing other First Nations or events. This one, a single feather, he said quietly, was made in memory of Serenity.
Last year Serenity would have been one of the children at the beach. She joined in the children's program we ran for a week. And she was one of four occupants who died when the house they were in burned down in the early hours of one morning this past February. We saw the empty piece of land where their house used to stand.
John Kiedrowski wrote in an article in the National Post last January, that:
The fire incidence rate is 2.4 times greater per capita than that for the rest of Canada, the fire damage per unit 2.1 times greater, the fire injury rate 2.5 times greater, and the death rate 10.4 times greater.There are many underlying reasons for this, including substance abuse, lack of adequate housing and lack of emergency services, to name a few.
Listen HERE to Chief Connie Gray-MacKay, on CBC Radio, February 18, 2014, responding to the tragedy in which Serenity died, and calling upon the Federal Government to address the challenges faced in making First Nations communities safe places to live for their children and grandchildren.
Serenity and Neesh, this is written so that you will be known beyond Mishkeegogamang and so that people will know of the challenges and the help that is needed for them to be overcome.
Your lives were precious. You had promise and hope. You are not forgotten.