Nicole McKay helps youth connect with their traditional lands

The healing power of the land: Nicole McKay (r), her husband, Wes (second from l), and their four children.

Nicole McKay is standing at a picnic table in Chippewa Park, just outside of Thunder Bay, Ontario, rolling strips of locally caught walleye in a mix of flour and spices. Behind her, three high-school students — sisters Kay and Karlee and their friend Dazele — are plucking feathers from a Canada goose, under the supervision of Elder Bella Patayash. This evening’s project will be to teach the girls, all high-school students, how to dress and cook the goose on an open fire and pan-fry the walleye, one of the region’s signature catches.

The mosquitoes and blackflies aren’t too bad on this early evening. Kay, Karlee and Dazele are Nicole’s few remaining students left in the city for the summer: the rest of their classmates have returned to the several remote First Nations they call home — Fort Severn, Keewaywin, Deer Lake, North Spirit Lake, Poplar Hill, and McDowell Lake — among others. Their home communities lack high schools, so Aboriginal teens make the trek to Thunder Bay for secondary school, a transition that can be — to put it mildly — challenging and unsettling.

Nicole’s job is to help ease that transition.

As the land-based coordinator of Keewaytinook Okimatkanak (KO) Secondary Student Services, Nicole — herself a mother of four — works to keep KO students connected with the land, and each other, while they’re away from home. She develops programs to teach kids how to fish and hunt, harvest traditional plants and medicines, and store and cook what they gather. They go on hikes, winter and summer hunts, camping adventures, and field trips to places like Mount McKay and other parts of Fort William First Nations territory. They also visit each other’s communities and build connections. “We learn from each other.”

“It’s my dream job,” says Nicole, 37, who, like Bella, is originally from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI for short), also known as Big Trout Lake First Nation, an Oji-Cree reserve in Northwestern Ontario. “It’s all the kind of stuff I love to do. It’s part of our lifestyle.”

Pan-fried walleye, one of the region’s signature catches.

Like her students, Nicole left her family’s traditional territory in KI to attend high school, first in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, and then in Thunder Bay. Luckily, she was able to stay with family during those years, which eased the transition — many First Nations students board with families they don’t know. Building strong connections with nature and each other is a good way for students to cope with the stress of being away from home, in an unfamiliar and sometimes hostile urban setting. It’s a role she’s familiar with: before taking on her current position in 2017, she worked at a First Nations organization providing services to Aboriginal women, children, families, and youth. As a youth in transition worker, she helped teenagers aging out the child welfare system and into adulthood.

“The land is healing,” she says, gesturing at the teenage girls giggling as they pluck the goose and chat in Ojibway with their Elder, the fish frying in the pan, the open fire, and the trees all around. “This is medicine, good medicine.”

It’s good medicine for Nicole personally as well. She and her husband, also an educator, make regular trips to Chippewa with their children in tow. They’re part of an informal gathering of families and students who meet up as often as possible to share tea and bannock or other traditional foods, visiting by the campfire while the kids play. “You get so busy with life in the city. And being in nature, eating traditional foods, learning traditional ways — is a positive way to cope with stress. It’s not an escape but a go-to.”

That’s the same spirit she wants to nurture in her students. “They’re learning the skills to feed themselves and feed others. They’re learning about the time and the effort that goes into that. When you’re fishing, you don’t just get in the boat and go fishing. You have to prep. You have to be safe. You have to understand the conditions, and how to maintain your equipment. We have a huge focus on safety.”

Teaching safety, she says, goes hand-in-hand with connecting to the earth. “There are so many things that can go wrong if you’re not careful, so you have to be humble. We teach respect for the environment, for what’s around us.”

Nicole and her family are noticing changes in their traditional trapline and hunting grounds. “Before, you’d be able to say, ‘At this time, the geese will come. At this time, the fish will come. At this time of year, you know the ice is solid.’ But now everything is delayed; you don’t know anymore. The ice is different — that’s what my dad is saying back at home, too.”

Walleye is sizzling in a pan. Water for tea and the goose soup is boiling on the fire.

“What’s our goal for the next fishing trip?” Nicole calls out to one of the teenagers.

The girl shrugs. “To catch more fish?”

“To be able to do it on your own,” Nicole calls back.

The girls set the table. Nicole sets out a platter of fish (the goose will take a while longer), baked beans fresh from the fire, and mashed potatoes made by the teens. We gather around, fill our plates, and give thanks for the food — which is beyond delicious.

“That’s one of the biggest things that I’ve learned about being out here, on the land,” says Nicole: “giving thanks. When you’re given food and medicine from the land, the teachings are to give thanks. My wish is to pass the teachings of giving thanks to my children and our students.”

Nicole, Bella, Kay, Karlee, and Dazele.

SUSAN GOLDBERG is a regular contributor to the Whole Family Happiness Project, where she is thrilled to eco-geek out on composting, reducing plastics, and other low-carbon life hacks. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent, Full Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines,and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and coeditor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. Susan is based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she can often be seen picking up cans to recycle on her neighbourhood walks.

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