For former Fort Albany Chief Mike Metatawabin, each day is a blessing.
Throughout his life, Metatwabin has worked with Five Nations Energy, Wawatay Native Communications Society and Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN). Currently, he sits on the board of Nishnawbe Aski Police Service as chairman.
As a former chief who served four consecutive terms, he’s learned the importance of working as a team and not taking things personally. The latter he received as advice from Justice of the Peace Alex Spence.
One of his career highlights was the project to build a new school in Fort Albany moving again.
On the day of Peetabeck Academy’s grand opening, the old residential school was burning, Metatawabin says adding that the building had already been burning for about three days.
“It really was an emotional day because we went over and watched the old school burning. And somebody said, as each brick fell, you could feel your scars opening,” Metatawabin recalls. “It was a quiet moment watching that.”
Another accomplishment was getting the community back from third-party management. Metatawabin is grateful to the health director Lucy Edwards for her help at the time.
“It’s one of those things. It shouldn’t be the case anymore. Nobody should be in third-party management anymore,” Metatawabin says. “Nobody should have boil water advisories anymore. Because people can do these things. But you have to have sound management.”
The federal government gave them six months to come up with a business plan. When the government representatives visited the community, Metatawabin invited them to have lunch where they saw community members having fun and smiling. That's what made a difference and helped the community, Metatawabin reflects now.
Metatawabin also served as a Nishnawbe Aski Nation deputy grand chief. He says the team had an idea on how to address the opioid issue and they took it to the Chiefs of Ontario but the proposal was turned down.
“It was very disappointing, very discouraging. Just hard to understand, hard to accept,” he says. “There was this funding that is available to all the communities in Ontario and it was allocated on a yearly basis. And what we proposed was a 15 per cent allocation of the total budget to go towards developing a unit or a program that would address the opioid addiction.”
After being involved in politics for decades, he realized nothing can be achieved in politics if people are divided.
About a decade ago, Metatawabin started writing poetry.
His first poem was about a residential school survivor. One time, he was at the Cochrane train station. It was dark. A man came out of the shadows, walked up to Metatawabin and asked for a cigarette. He started talking about Fort Albany, about his experience and why he was on the street, Metatawabin recalls.
The man was emotional, he says.
“And he said thank you. Thank you for the work you guys do, for the work that you do to advocate for us. And then he walked back in the shadows,” Metatawabin says. “I think that might have been the first poem I wrote. I called it Cochrane Night.”
Last month, Metatawabin presented a spoken word project he worked on in collaboration with Swiss German musicians.
A lot of his writing was done through his phone. When he’s travelling on a plane, that’s when he’s in his zone and he puts his feelings and thoughts into words.
When he thinks of his childhood and youth, he remembers the many goodbyes he had to say to his parents each year he had to go to a residential school and then when he left for high school.
When he was about five years old, Metatawabin was taken to a residential school. In his first year, he had a head injury from falling from a balcony onto a rock. When he looks back, he remembers everything being hazy.
“Nobody knew back then that I have suffered a severe concussion,” he says. “I remember trying to play outside with the kids. But everything seems so hazy or fuzzy. And the sun was just too great for me.”
He doesn’t know how long the injury lasted but eventually, it got back to normal. Metatawabin stayed in the residential school for about six years. In his last year, his mother told him he didn’t have to go back. But Metatawabin felt a certain obligation to be there for his two younger brothers.
“You learn from experience in that system, you do need somebody to watch over you because there are always bullies. There’s always something going on,” he says.
When he was in high school in Peterborough, he learned about his identity as a First Nations person. When other students asked him questions about culture and traditions, he didn’t know what to answer. So, he ended up in a library where he spent lunch hours reading about First Nations’ culture and being blown away by the history.
“Our community had adopted the Christian faith. We never saw anybody drumming or dancing, there was no powwow,” he says. “And nothing was taught in the school about that. You only learned a settler history.”
He then left to North Bay and to Edmonton, trying to finish high school.
Reflecting on his life, Metatawabin, 58, says he doesn’t have any regrets.
“You can’t live in the past or have regrets. You are who you are today. And you are where you are today,” he says.
With four children and five grandchildren, it’s important for Metatawabin, who was born and raised speaking the Cree language, to pass down his culture and traditions to the younger generation.
“Each day is a blessing, is a gift. You do what you can, do your best. And that’s what we try to teach our grandchildren,” he says.
Now living in Timmins, Metatawabin says he’d prefer to live up north. If his family were to move up north to Fort Albany or to his wife Eva's home community, which is Gordon’s First Nation in Saskatchewan, there are areas more culturally and traditionally active in terms of practicing heritage, he says.
“For us up north, it’s more of a cultural thing where we still hunt, trap and all that stuff. I would be happy to be up there and carry on, not full time but in a meaningful way, do some of those activities,” he says.
Before Metatawabin and Eva say or do something, they ask themselves if it’s kind, necessary or true.
“It keeps you in balance,” Metatawabin says. “You keep yourselves in check. We got that from Facebook.”