The first Sunday of Advent is sacred in our family. It is the day when our expectation of Christmas really begins. We celebrate it with different family traditions, but the pinnacle of the day is putting up the Christmas tree.
A few years ago, when I was beginning to learn about the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, Sudan, we made that place and those people the focus of our tree. For a few years we researched the current situation, studied the specifics about different refugee camps in the region, and contemplated the faces and the stories that we saw and read about. Different names of people and refugee camps found their way onto homemade ornaments that hung on our tree to remind us that beyond our walls, the world is not like ours. It was our way of telling the story of the people of Darfur and saying in a physical way, "we will not forget you". And we haven't. Tragically, that particular crisis is far from over.
This year I invited the girls to choose the theme for who we would honor and give focus to on our tree. We shared different ideas together and mulled them over. Then last week I heard more of the story of the people of Attawapiskat - a Cree First Nation on the James Bay in the far north of Ontario. One month ago today, the reserve declared a state of emergency over the housing conditions they are living with. Many families in the community are living in tents, shacks, and sheds with no access to electricity, running water, or plumbing. It is beyond reason that people in our own country would be living in conditions this dire. When the girls heard the story of the people in Attawapiskat they immediately insisted on making them the focus of our tree.
Three weeks in to their declared State of Emergency, no one from the federal government had bothered to travel to Attawapiskat. Charlie Angus, an NDP MP was the first, and until today, the only government official to actually travel to Attawapiskat to see what the condition were like to result in the state of emergency. He posted this video to youtube to create awareness gather support for the people of that community.
Various news agencies picked up the story last week and people began to pressure the feds to take action in Attawapiskat. It was just announced that federal officials will arrive in the community tomorrow to begin to deal with the situation. Since the story broke, the government has pledged 2.5 million dollars for housing in the community. The Red Cross is sending a team that will arrive this week to help address the immediate crisis.
Help is coming to Attawapiskat. But housing isn't the only problem.
Our girls were saddened to know that since the year 2000 when the community school was condemned due to diesel contamination, the kids on the reserve have had no school. They have been using portables for 11 long years while they wait for the government to make good on their promise to rebuild their school.
So on Sunday, we spent the better part of the afternoon reading about the community. We talked about history, treaties, and the role the Canadian government plays in being responsible for First Nations people. We talked about how the Band system works and what life is like on reserves from our very limited knowledge and exposure.
As we traced and cut shapes on paper, we shared what we wanted to focus on. The girls told Mike what kind of pictures they needed and they began to write phrases and words onto their ornaments that would tell the story of the people of Attawapiskat.
Talking about hard reality isn't a joyful event. It isn't easy. There aren't always answers that make sense or make things fit. Most of the time, there are no answers at all.
No, it may not be easy, but it is empowering. As the girls were talking with passion rising in their voices for the people of this community they've only just learned of, I felt my energy and my excitement building. They are going to be world changers, these girls of mine. They want to see justice and they know that every child deserves to be safe.
Soon it was time to hang their words and the images they found onto the branches...
Does hanging paper with words on a tree change anything for the people in Attawapiskat? No. But it changes us. And it makes us mobilized to chase what's right and just for the people of that community.
Advent is the season of waiting.
And this year, as we light our Advent candles, we wait with Attawapiskat.
For an update, read this post.