Thursday, 25 July 2013

Fisher River and Financial Exclusion Research

By Gabrielle Héroux, 1st year MDP student

Day 4 of the trip to Fisher River, the other site for our research project on Indigenous Financial Exclusion.  It’s the last official week of my field placement.  It’s been a good week.  Got off to a fairly inauspicious start, though, when Stella, her family, and I got completely lost in the backroads of rural Manitoba.  How’s that for a terrible way to die.  Word to the wise: if you’re going to Fisher River, do not rely on Google Maps for directions.  Anyways, got back on the right path with the help of a kind stranger in a minivan.  Got here midday-ish on Monday, headed straight to the band office to meet up with Dion McKay, the band councilor who’s been our main contact in FRCN.  We hashed out the finer details of our stay here, discussed accommodations, work space, and our student assistant.  For the latter, we were set up with Taylor, a young woman who is about to start her third year at the University of Winnipeg, and is participating in FRCN’s youth summer employment program.

And not to put too fine a point on it, or anything, but she has been amazing.  There’s no way we could have accomplished even half as much as we have without her.  She’s organized, she’s motivated, she’s been calling everyone she knows and recruiting people like gangbusters.

Recruitment, predictably, has been the most difficult part of the week.  There are the obstacles of not knowing many people here, of our very short time frame, and of there not really being one central place to find a bunch of people at once.  But it’s also a busy week for the community, for good and not-so-good reasons.  For one, they’re having Treaty Days next week, and lots of people are involved with that, preparing food stands and organizing events.

Dion also let us know that the band office’s long-time receptionist passed away on the Saturday before we got here.  So, naturally, a lot of focus and energy is on that.  It’s been weighing heavily on everyone’s hearts and minds.  Her funeral is today in Fairford, where she was born.  So the band office is closed, and a good number of community members are out there.

The only ATM in Fisher River Cree Nation
We have nevertheless gotten a good deal of research done.  As in Winnipeg, people have been very interested in our topic, and eager to share their experiences.  Some notable trends have emerged so far, different from some of what we saw in the city.  For instance, I don’t think I’ve surveyed anyone yet who has used a payday lender or pawnshop, and if they’ve used fringe financial institutions at all, it’s been the local store.  Which makes sense – people use what’s available and convenient.  People are also highly mobile here, traveling back and forth to Winnipeg and other nearby communities, doing their banking at banks or credit unions there.  Some respondents have expressed the wish to have a bank here, but it doesn’t seem to be a gigantic obstacle.  The community has adapted.

Diane Roussin, of Ma Mawi, made an interesting point at an Advisory Committee meeting earlier in the summer.  She said that people’s dreams and expectations around banking are shaped by their experiences.  They may not want more than what has been available to them, not because their current situation is the most advantageous, simply because we know what we know.  It can be difficult to want to something that’s essentially always been outside your reality.  How do you know your Access to Basic Banking Services (ABBS) rights aren’t being adequately upheld, if you don’t know you have those rights?  Which is not inconceivable.  Many people don’t know about ABBS.  For that matter, I’ve worked with tellers who don’t know about ABBS.

Anyways, it’s an important point that makes a lot of sense, and might mean something as yet undetermined for our results.  Not sure what kind of impact that will have on our Ideal Bank participatory method, or on people’s responses to the survey questions about how satisfied they are and what, if anything, they would change about their financial services.  That’s a difficult thing to control for.

But we’ll forge ahead anyways.  I have one day left in FRCN, and I’m hoping to get some financial life histories and a focus group done tomorrow.  Then it’s back to Winnipeg, and then back home.  I can hardly believe this placement is almost done.  That’ll take some processing time.  I know this project isn’t done, not even close.  So the summer may be coming to an end.  But we still have work to do!

Hiking in Flip Flops

By: Kirsten Junker-Andersen, 2nd Year MDP Student

Picture this, you have a long weekend to travel to a different town and, with a group of friends, you decide to go on a mokoro trip through the delta – admittedly one of most touristy activities that exists, but also something that simply cannot be missed. Essentially a mokoro is a dug-out canoe, steered by a person standing at the back with a long pole down the river through reeds and lilies, in a desperate attempt to see – but not be killed by – hippos and crocs.

After much research we were certain we had found the perfect trip, the description seemed idyllic and we felt more than prepared for our journey.  “A motorboat will take you to the mokoro launch point, from there you will navigate the delta in your mokoros until you reach an island where you will have lunch.  There will be opportunity for a walk around the island to escape the midday heat, after which you will return to the mokoro to complete your journey.”                                                                              

Perfect.  Floating in a boat steered by someone else, some lunch, perhaps a little walk – lots of quality tanning time throughout.  Living the dream. 

Our not so watertight, but beautiful, mode of transportation
I knew something was off the moment that we arrived for the trip when the owner of the facility looked at Dulce and I in our shorts and flip flops and said “you brought shoes and long pants for the hike right?”.  What? Hike?!  That sounded decisively more intense than a walk around the island but we assured her that we would be fine, no we did not bring anything different, and off we went on our boats.  The boat ride was as sublime as we had dreamed – and we did see hippos and survived – so by the time we reached the island we had nearly forgotten about the feeling of foreboding that we had earlier.  Then our guide announced that we would now be doing the hike, and that it would be 3 hours and asked if that was okay.  I think everyone thought this was kind of a joke and so while we were slightly wide-eyed nobody explicitly said no.  This was a mistake.

Our hike was, in fact, the entire 3 hours, and it definitely was not intended to allow us to escape the midday heat, as we were hiking through savannah and desert right during the heat of the day.  I am still unsure of the logic of this plan.  While we did have the opportunity to get shockingly close to some elephants, zebra, and some warthogs, by the time we reached the end we all collapsed to the ground in exhaustion sporting mild sunburns and extremely dirty and cut-up feet.  This was not what we had been prepared for.

Clearly there was little cover from the sun on this hike
Looking back on that experience I really see it as the perfect metaphor for my time here, or perhaps even for development in general.  People that go into this field often have extensive training – perhaps even master’s degrees – in the field, and years of experience that provide them with knowledge and an assurance that they understand what type of situation they are entering.  Despite this, no matter how many case-studies you have done, countries you have been to, or situations you have entered that are “just like this one” you can never be fully prepared or truly understand what you are getting into based on the story that you read on paper before you get there.  You can read the project description, the country profile, and ensure you get all the required vaccinations and preventative medications before you go, but all of that is truly irrelevant once you arrive.  Because “development” involves real people, and physical places, and actively engaging in something that is happening and changing regardless of whether you are there or not.  That’s the beautiful, but painful, part of trying to do this type of work.  It’s admitting that you aren’t fully prepared and that you never truly will be.  It’s kind of like hiking in flip flops - you’re still going to get there, the route just might be a little rougher along the way.   

The end result. Our feet may never be the same again.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Amidst the trauma, there is rising hope

By Margaret Lewis-John 1st Year MDP student

I am blessed to be currently doing my field placement at the Blue Quills First Nation College (BQFNC), in Alberta. The site of this college built in the 1930’s was a former residential school building. Coming here brought certain anticipated feelings to me, that of, being able to enter the premises of what I would have read and heard about in relation to the impact of residential schools on Indigenous Peoples in Canada.  It is significant for me since many of the persons in my region of the Caribbean are no longer alive to share their firsthand experience of colonisation of our Kalingo/Carib Peoples or of slavery of Africans almost 200 years ago.  I can see that after listening to many who spoke of their experience in residential school, that no matter if its 200 years or less the trauma manifests itself in many different forms hence the need to ensure social and economic development so we do not remain the same or ever allow this to happen again.

Since 1970, BQFNC is the only locally controlled Indigenous education college in Canada. At its present state instead of housing children taken from their parents it houses college and university programs for persons in the area and even as far as from the city of Edmonton 200 km southwest from the college. The College is fostering education for development the Indigenous way as a means of reclaiming their heritage and traditions. Hence in looking at the building it stands as a reminder of the trauma faced by the Indigenous people but the programs and interactions of the students demonstrates a rising hope for the future. 
From left to right BQFNC staff, James Lamouche (Director of Research and Indigenous Health Sciences Coordinator),Vivian Jenkins (Indigenous Language Resource Centre Coordinator), Sharon Jackson (Librarian), Higgs Murphy (Timber Frame, Coordinator), Ben White (IT Support), Anne Blower (IT Coordinator) in center Margaret Lewis-John (MDP student)
I was given a tour of the college by a former residential school survivor who recounted what happened to her as a child at the school and also by a first generation child who spoke of her parents, uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews who were also affected. This tour gave me the opportunity to see the building and to hear the many stories still fresh in the minds of many. As I spoke with persons who visit the college, travel to the Saddle Lake community or attend a Pow wow in Beaver Lake the story is the same by those who were affected. The sentiments expressed were “if they want me to burn it down I will do it now’, for others “my uncle is waiting for the day when they will ask him to blow it up, he will be the first in line to agree” or it still is difficult for me to enter the building, but I see hope in the programs taught there”. These sentiments though hard at times for many are a guiding light to the team of teachers and administrators who offer college and university programs to the students by embracing all cultures and people. 
Not in Hawaii yet, but at Saddle Lake College graduation with Lisa Dixon (MDP student), Vince Steinhauer (President BQFNC) & Margaret Lewis-John (MDP student)

The programs offered by the college embrace the Indigenous traditions and it is not strange to see a class begin with a smudging ceremony and prayer. This is a means of reclaiming their traditions and beliefs. Additionally the Cree language is spoken freely by teachers and students and each day it gives me the opportunity to learn a new word or get an explanation as to what was said by someone in Cree. It is often said that if you have no language you have no culture or identity. Within the College there is a strong sense of pride and interest in all to speak the language and whereas through my readings residential schools did not allow the speaking of the language, there is no barrier now to its growth. Many second and third generation families especially among the women are ensuring that they teach their grandchildren the language as this is often expressed during a sharing circle or casual conversation. This certainly speaks hope. Also the use of and wearing of Indigenous craft is evident among many whether it’s through the wearing of earrings, ribbon shirts or skirts. These signify that there is hope and resilience among the people and this is fostered through the college education for development programs.         

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The Things We Build

By Megan Prydun, 2nd year MDP student

This morning was one of my most favorite moments to date here in Ghana. We arrived at Kperisi, the community we are working with, early, light gray clouds hanging lazily on the horizon. We were on a mission and it involved dirt, shovels, and cement.

We have been working hard with participants, laying the foundation for a small, community-led development intervention over the past few weeks. This has included countless meetings with community elders and leadership, focus groups, informal discussions, and relationship building activities. There have been significant challenges- logistical, cultural, communication, internal community tension- but there is an amazing process unfolding. These engagements have carved out space for community members to give voice to and identify important development priorities in their lives and co-create the way forward with the limited time and resources available.

One of these community identified priorities is to build a small storage structure to safely house the products women make, in order to expand production, enhance income-generation opportunities, and strengthen the local economy. During one of the focus groups, the women shared a heartbreaking story underlining the need for such a structure. About 5 months ago, a woman was making soap, a popular market item in demand in Wa. She had just mixed the caustic solution, a poisonous liquid ingredient required to create the soap, when she stepped into the house to retrieve something. In her short absence, her 7 year old daughter mistook the solution for something she could drink and swallowed a cup full. Tragically, the little girl died. Since then, the women have stopped making soap in their homes in fear that other children could get hurt. Not only does the community contend with the grief of the situation, but deepened poverty, as ceasing soap making has significantly impacted their income-generating capacity.

With the donation of some incredibly generous Winnipeg friends in my pocket, we purchased cement to begin making the blocks for the structure. The location was chosen by the women, placed next to two giant mango trees where they will do their work. The storage structure is only a few steps away and when it is completed, there will be a safe place standing to keep caustic solution or any other products the women choose. Although this is a small and simple intervention, it is exactly what the community needs. Kperisi has seen a revolving door of students come through the community to fulfill their local educational requirement, with little benefit or result from their time and information sharing. Upon seeing the implications of this type of learning, and Kperisi’s initial hesitation regarding participation, we felt it was very important to leave something of benefit behind from our interaction, even if it is small.
When we arrived at the site, a mountain of sand and a group of youth were waiting for us. The morning was a flurry of activity- youth mixing cement and sand, women pouring water into a large holding drum, leaders clearing the site, and elders pulling up chairs to watch the excitement. The feeling was incredible! Truly empowering and the fruits of what began as a relationship based on reciprocity and mutual learning. We worked until the rains began. Yes, the rains have finally arrived! We raced to cover the bricks already made, with a sheet of plastic, as the sky opened up above us. Although we had to suspend our work, the drops of water felt more like a blessing than an inconvenience.