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Jackson Wesley is passionate about basketball. He plays for his high school team in Sioux Lookout, 180 kilometres from home. But it’s March break, and he’s back in Cat Lake First Nation for the week. His mom, Sylvia Wesley, is a kindergarten teacher at Lawrence Wesley Education Centre, so Jackson has a pair of keys to the gym if he wants to steal some practice time. He picked up the sport in 2019 after quitting hockey, and since then, he’s been working on his game whenever he has time, scoring a career high of 36 points this season.

But even basketball is taking a back seat as Jackson deliberates his future. Will he stay in Cat Lake? Will he work with heavy machinery, his favoured career choice? The questions arise, but for the moment, he’s focused on finishing Grade 11 and, next year, obtaining his diploma.

He’s a success story for a community that faces many struggles giving kids a leg up and the resilience they need to get a high school education. Approximately one in five working-age adults over 24 in Cat Lake has a high school diploma, according to Statistics Canada’s 2021 census.

Jackson Wesley is passionate about basketball, but even that has to take a back seat while deliberating where his education might take him. Photo by Matteo Cimellaro / Canada's National Observer

Cat Lake First Nation is an island in northern Ontario — a fly-in community of just under 500 people — surrounded by a freshwater lake. The entire island is reserve land, except for the little plot owned by the North West Company where the Northern Store sits.

Each year, Cat Lake’s youth fly out of the community in small single-engine planes. They travel south for school in Sioux Lookout and Thunder Bay after saying goodbye to parents, grandparents and other extended family. They live hundreds of kilometres away from their families for eight months of the year and return home for a week in the fall, two weeks over Christmas and for March break.

Small houses line the handful of main roads in town. Others overlook the lake or sit in front of trees that stand 20 feet tall or higher. The smell of wood ovens and sounds of chopping wood and children playing circle the air.

Jackson Wesley puts up shots at Lawrence Wesley Education Centre. His mom works at the school and has keys to the gym whenever he wants to shoot around. Photo by Matteo Cimellaro / Canada's National Observer

Like any high school student, Jackson’s first few years away from home were difficult. His relationship with his mom wasn’t as good as it is now, and he fell in with the wrong crowd.

It's more than just an education story and funding amounts for Chief Russell Wesley — it's a social story that roots down to colonial injustices like residential schools. #Reconciliation #TRC #CanPoli #Colonialism #CatLake

“I was tossed into a whole bunch of people all the time. I tried making new friends, but they weren’t really friends,” Jackson said.

Drugs and alcohol were at hand and commonly used by his friends.

“I used to do it, too — I tried to bury myself… I want to stay away from that stuff now, be the best I can,” he added.

Now, his relationship with his mom is strong, and he has a support system, with his cousins and an aunt in Sioux Lookout and a girlfriend in Cat Lake. Extended family and support are largely responsible for shaping a child’s future, Russell Wesley, chief of Cat Lake, observed.

Graduating high school, even just reaching Grade 11 like Jackson has, is no mean feat in a community with an 80 per cent dropout rate. Graduation rates are increasing, although “very, very slowly,” Chief Wesley said.

Chief Wesley was keen to show me the challenges youth in his community face long before they fly south to attend high school. Housing shortages, poverty and mental health crises have plagued Cat Lake for years. And now, they threaten members of the new generation striving for a diploma and a better life for themselves and their nation. All things considered, these students are a testament to resilience, and it’s perhaps a small miracle when anyone makes it through at all.

“We can't advance our social and economic interests because we're too busy fighting crises,” Chief Wesley said. “This is what students have to deal with coming out of Cat Lake.”

Chief Russell Wesley hard at work scrambling to co-ordinate a fuel run to the local police station so that pipes don't freeze. Photo by Matteo Cimellaro / Canada's National Observer

Chapter 1: A rough start for Cat Lake kids

During the school year, elementary school children take the short bus ride to Cat Lake’s Lawrence Wesley Education Centre. It was built in 2015 with the ability to expand in case the community at some point wanted to add high school or early education, Chief Wesley said.

The school contains a library, small cafeteria, gym and computer lab. Classrooms are outfitted with smart boards, on par or even better than any school in the south. A handful of teachers, including a language teacher and support staff, are hired internally within the community. However, turnover is high, especially for teachers who arrive from outside the community, which creates instability for students and parents.

For years, on-reserve schools like Lawrence Wesley faced severe underfunding, surviving on 30 per cent less money than provincial schools. The federal government began to close the gap seven years ago. That helped, but it solved only part of the problem.

“At the end of the day, we haven’t fixed what’s happening in our First Nations,” Chief Wesley added.

Ice fishing is a popular pastime in Cat Lake. Fantastic deals on walleye can regularly be found on the community's Facebook buy and sell. Photo by Matteo Cimellaro / Canada's National Observer

Take the housing crisis, for example. It’s not uncommon to have multiple families, up to 15 people, living in a home the size of a three-bedroom apartment. Children have no privacy and no quiet place to study.

Overcrowded housing makes it hard for students to develop a set routine, said Greg Quachegan, vice-principal for Dennis Franklin Cromarty, one of the First Nation schools in Thunder Bay, Ont. You’re awake when people sleep, sleep when others are awake; sometimes when you’re studying, family is talking or the TV is on, he said.

There are also significant health impacts associated with overcrowding, a leading cause of mould in homes. In 2019, more than three-quarters of the community’s housing was deemed unfit. A hundred children — almost half of those in the community — were diagnosed with respiratory diseases linked to black mould.

After the community declared a state of emergency, the federal government promised to build more than 100 new homes. Only half are built, with the pandemic slowing down construction. Today, work is constant. Most are the size of a large three-bedroom apartment and heated by wood stoves.

Meanwhile, many people still live in some of the old mould-infested homes, waiting for the construction to finish.

A contractor works on a new build following a black mould crisis in 2019. Photo by Matteo Cimellaro / Canada's National Observer

Add all that to issues of food insecurity and poverty, said Quachegan, and “sometimes kids don’t want to go home because of their home situations.”

Other times, the pendulum swings the other way. Homesickness is common for students away from their families; some leave their community as young as 13. And sometimes, older students, like Harmony Fiddler, are called on to fill in as part-time caretakers of younger siblings or older family members with an illness.

“I took two years off just because my sister went out for school and I wanted to take care of my mom,” said Fiddler, a 20-year-old Dennis Franklin Cromarty student from Sandy Lake First Nation.

Cat Lake, like many other First Nations in the North, is impoverished. The average annual income in 2020 was only $29,600 per person, and the cost of living is high, with food and gas prices among the highest in Canada. The only store in town is run by the remnants of the historical North West Company, created in 1668 and otherwise known as the Hudson Bay Company.

The Northern Store charges more than $10 for a box of pasta and $9 for a litre of orange juice. A bag of salad is $11, and other fresh fruits and vegetables are akin to luxury items. Gas, a necessity for boats, quads and snowmobiles, often holds steady above $3 a litre.

Fresh produce isn't the only high-priced good in Cat Lake. Northern Store can charge up to $3 a litre for gas, a commodity that is relied upon for hunting, fishing and getting around town in a truck, snowmobile or four-wheeler. Photo by Matteo Cimellaro / Canada's National Observer

Families hunt and fish to augment food supplies and depend on a school nutrition program, which provides fresh fruit and vegetables to hungry students. However, it runs dry every March, well before the school year ends, when the federal fiscal year closes and program funding comes to an abrupt halt.

When that happens, people “get hungry, they get moody,” said Sylvia Wesley, a kindergarten teacher at Lawrence Wesley and the mother of Jackson Wesley. “There’s no backup plan.”

But there’s more.

Cat Lake is a dry community with an addiction crisis.

You would be hard-pressed to tell. Bingo nights are the talk of the town on Fridays. And on a quiet Saturday afternoon, you might find the children driving snowmobiles through the community, two or four on a ride, hitting a jump or two.

Yet, beneath those sunny scenes lies a dark reality: Cat Lake First Nation has around 180 active registered participants in its suboxone program to treat opioid addiction out of a total population of just under 500, Chief Wesley said. An emergent meth crisis and bootleggers also complicate the picture, adding a more nuanced treatment program to the development of much-needed services.

And yet, there’s no addiction doctor in the community. Only one doctor serves the entire northern region, and he’s based hundreds of kilometres away in Toronto.

“They never come up here, they just do it by telehealth,” Chief Wesley said.

Chief Wesley thinks if First Nations in the North had more doctors — two, three or preferably four — dedicated by region and working within it, “then we could get somewhere.”

“Residential school trauma introduces intergenerational trauma, whether it's a residential school, or alcohol and drug abuse, sexual abuse, all of those abuses are shaping our children,” Chief Wesley, himself a residential school survivor, said. “And it's really impacting our students' success rates. I don't see an end to that for a long while yet.”

Even now, it’s difficult for Quachegan, the vice-principal in Thunder Bay, to talk about students he has lost to the social crises within northern First Nations. On a phone call, he changes the topic quickly when asked about the impact.

“It’s hard to talk about,” he said. “We’ve lost a lot of students taking their own lives up on the rez after leaving here.”

Chapter 2: Community-based solutions have gone underfunded

Cat Lake's healing lodge was built in the 1980s to treat residential school traumas. Photo by Matteo Cimellaro / Canada's National Observer

Chief Wesley pulls up to his community’s healing lodge in his iconic green Ford Bronco. It's dusk, and a cold wind whips in from Cat Lake, the body of water the First Nation is named after.

He points to the building’s eastern door — the healing lodge was built in the 1980s to treat residential school survivors. The building is a legacy project of Chief Wesley’s late wife and is modelled after a sweat lodge. It acts as a catch-all building, with administration offices on the first floor, accommodations on the second and a quiet room at the top with an eagle’s nest view of the community.

Chief Wesley would love to have a team to run a culture-based drug and alcohol program, backed by qualified doctors and mental health professionals.

The adult education centre is also underused. Chief Wesley said he’s brought in dozens of online education opportunities through partnerships with colleges, and yet, the centre sits empty due to low registration.

He and the band council are focused on bringing in new opportunities to restore old values through cultural and land-based programs that teach Anishinaabe culture, language and practices on the land, such as how to hunt and fish and clean the animals.

Chief Wesley draws a diagram of the hub and spoke model used to treat community members with addiction. The hub is a facility in Sioux Lookout, a 30-minute flight from Cat Lake, the spokes are the land-based programs in remote First Nations. Photo by Matteo Cimellaro / Canada's National Observer

Land-based programs are modelled after ancestral teachings around hunting, trapping, fishing and harvesting. They take ancestral land practices and infuse them with Anishinaabe language and spirituality. In Cat Lake, small-scale versions of these programs have taken place, with some students going out with the community’s land-based expert to learn how to trap and clean a rabbit.

Cat Lake also hopes to open community-run shops, like a co-op and coffee shop, to compete with the Northern Store’s monopoly. They want to build a daycare centre, expand the school and partner with industry on resource development.

Later, Chief Wesley brakes and waits at a stop sign for a long pause. When he speaks, he draws from the decades he’s spent as political leader for Cat Lake and other northern First Nations through his work on the Windigo Tribal Council. For Chief Wesley, education doesn’t begin and end in the classroom. It takes place daily with family and community, both of which have been infected by the traumas of residential schools and other colonial injustices.

“It's … I don't know.” He thinks about why he’s telling someone reporting on education about opioid and meth addictions. “It's just not an education story — it's a social story.”

If you are thinking of suicide or know someone who is, there is help. Resources are available online at, or you can connect to the national suicide prevention helpline at 1-833-456-4566 or the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868. First Nations people, Métis and Inuit can also reach out to Hope for Wellness at 1-855-242-3310 or the Kamatsiaqtut Help Line at 1-800-265-3333.

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Please keep reporting about these issues, people, and life in northwestern Ontario, especially farther north. All of this region is underreported. I have no idea about the history, culture, politics and challenges of the region, and it is important for me to try to understand, especially as many of the residents have to come to larger cities for education, medical treatment, or for evacuations. These articles help give me some perspective. Thank you.

The North West Company. Still doing colonialism after all these years. That's crazy.