Mayor's trip to Fort Albany a first

Michelle Boileau’s first trip up the James Bay coast was enlightening.

The Timmins mayor traveled to Fort Albany this week in her role as the Cochrane District Social Service Administration Board (CDSSAB) chair. In the remote community, she met with Chief Elizabeth Kataquapit and Deputy Chief Terry Metatawabin.

She said she saw a need to engage with First Nations communities in the area and started reaching out before the holidays.

“I sent out a few meeting requests and met with the Chief of Moose Cree First Nation while he was in Timmins, and I met with the Grand Chief of Mushkegowuk council, Alison Linklater, and I guess word got around,” said Boileau. “And low, and behold, I received a request from Fort Albany to meet while they were in Timmins.”

That initial meeting led to an invitation to meet the leadership in Fort Albany.

“It was exciting,” said Boileau, who had previously not visited further north than Moosonee and Moose Factory. “We ended up keeping in touch, and we were able to take them up on the offer for this two-day visit.”

She said the trip was a way to build connections between Timmins and the First Nations communities whose members call the city home, as well as addressing the issues faced by those First Nation members.

There were some things that she said she was surprised by, but the experience was one of education and understanding for her.

“There were a lot of lessons learned,” she said. “We didn’t realize that there wasn’t any cell service in Fort Albany, so that was a shock on arrival, and I didn’t realize how limited we’d be for food options with stores, and I should have expected these things, but I kind of hadn’t thought about it very much.”

The trip is the culmination of an intentional push from CDSSAB to reach out to First Nations in their catchment and address the issues their communities face.

“We needed to start engaging more directly with First Nations communities,” said Boileau. “It’s really following the example set by some other DSSABs, and especially being new to the mayor’s role as well, I wanted to engage with communities in the area.”

She said that the family of the elder whose funeral she attended while visiting the community, expressed how fortuitous it was that she was in Fort Albany on that day.

“There was a bit of a tragic connection to Timmins for this family, and the deputy chief shared with me that they felt like it was significant that the mayor of Timmins just happened to be there the day of the funeral,” said Boileau. “They felt that I should be in attendance and should witness it.

That human connection between people is what she says she and CDSSAB CAO Brian Marks want to continue to build, not only with the community in Fort Albany, but with other First Nations throughout the district.

The meetings with leadership in Fort Albany also showed Boileau that their concerns and the issues they’re facing are not that different than the ones in Timmins.

“We’re coming back with a few ideas of how we can continue to build on this relationship,” said Boileau. “A lot of the challenges are infrastructure based, and water, and the need to build new housing, it’s all very familiar, what they’re working on and priorities, just a different scale.”

She said she was also struck by how omnipresent St. Anne’s Residential School, which was torn down in 2010, was in the community.

“A lot of people that I either rode in a vehicle with or I was talking with would point out where the school was, and where the different buildings were, so even though it’s not there anymore, it’s still very present in the community,” she said. “A lot of the people I interacted with attended the school so getting to witness and hear the testimony in the community had an extra level of impact.”

She highlighted the importance of the stories from survivors and, as the search for unmarked graves continues, the support all communities can show for Fort Albany First Nation.

“People were very open and generous with their sharing of their experiences and their stories, and I was really grateful for that,” she said.

She said the trip’s main goal was to help find and learn to fill the gaps in CDSSAB’s services in the community so that the services in Timmins match up with what is happening further north.

“We have a better idea of what services are available, and we felt it was important to have that level of understanding, so we can better serve people when they’re here,” she said.

Overall, she said the trip was something she hopes to do with other communities and with Fort Albany in the future, and she felt it expanded her understanding and perspective, but it also offered something in short supply for many in the city.

“One of my impressions is just how quiet and peaceful and tranquil it is,” she said. “It was a beautiful change for me.”

Amanda Rabski-McColl, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter,