The camp trailers at the Island Falls hydroelectric dam create a pocket of comfort amid raw boreal wilderness. Heavy snowfall, late into the spring, amplifies the sense of security the pre-fabricated living quarters and kitchens provide. In a long room designated as a games and recreation area, tables are being set out in classroom formation. Coffee is perking on a table by the door; pencils and paper are placed by each seat. There is a slight tension here this Monday morning. A lot is at stake.
Five hours into the drive from Saskatoon the day before we saw the first buildings at Pelican Narrows. They were as colourless as the forest itself in the smothered light of a late spring snowfall. Children, young men and women, and dogs walked on the road without looking up. Houses were draped in fresh clean drifts and the unlit windows—the ones not covered with plywood—looked stark and gaping. We kept driving north. The road to Island Falls bypassed Sandy Bay, the last community on the road, and we arrived at dusk.
The room fills with the first group to arrive from Sandy Bay. The reserve community is home to roughly 2,500 Cree residents. Twenty of them were selected from a pile of applications to come to the camp five days a week for 12 weeks for a shot at something that commonly eludes local people: the possibility of getting a job, keeping it, and possibly advancing.
This is called the Ready to Work (RTW) Tourism Careers program. It is a national program facilitated by the Saskatchewan Tourism Education Council (STEC). It is about as blunt an instrument as you can imagine to fix the chronic issues of unemployment and poverty that have afflicted reserve life since it was conceived. Today Merilee MacLaggan, owner of Chantico Training, and Lyla Pochipinski will cover public speaking and preparing a resume. Orest speaks first. He explains the basics of safe and effective bodybuilding with weights. Harley presents a dream catcher and describes the economy of making them and selling them for $20 each.
To be here, participants have to arrange childcare for several children. Part of the application process is a disclosure of criminal records, something that could be disastrous when the actual job search begins. These participants are not ambitious adolescents giddy with expectations of a career. These are people whom, in the words of program facilitator Lynne Kennedy, “the school system failed.” The two things that factor against successful long-term employment, she says, are the lack of childcare, and substance abuse.
We are regularly told that wealth in the form of a booming economy is going to close the gap between the rich and the poor. It is a gospel that the economy, when it is generating record profits, will propel new technologies to save us from ecological ruin. The faster we gather up the material wealth that lies at, or beneath, our feet, it goes, the sooner we’ll have the kind of health care we all want. From the admittedly uncommon vantage point of a life-skills course at Island Falls, that seems pretty inadequate.
If time is what it takes to create a learning environment that actually works for people, then the spacious rural grounds at St. Peter’s College in Muenster seem to be ideal. The elegant brick buildings—part Benedictine abbey, part college—create a scholarly atmosphere. Brother Kurt Kreuger’s voice is just audible outside the large, open doorway into a class on psychology. He describes the indications of a schizophrenic disorder. The students are variously alert, busy with notes, distracted, or exhibiting mid-afternoon fatigue—nothing unusual there. The room is expansive and filled with light from south-facing windows—a departure from claustrophobic classrooms I recall from university. Brother Kurt is certainly unique. He is the only member of the abbey who teaches.