Recently while covering an event as part of my work I was surprised at a question that came my way. That query came from the voice of a child. Little Michael Tomagatick looked up at me and asked, “Do you speak your language?” I answered him yes in the Cree dialect from the Attawapiskat area.

Little Michael seemed quite surprised that I could carry on a conversation with him and he also seemed very proud and happy. We chatted in Cree surrounded by his Grade 6 classmates of St. Paul’s School in Timmins. I could see by the smile on his friends’ faces that they were pleased and curious about Michael’s ability to chat in a language so foreign to them.

I was amazed at this young boy’s ability to speak the ancient Cree language as though he was an Elder from up the coast. He was very comfortable and I understood that it made him feel good to be able to show his friends that his traditional language and culture was alive in him.

In this experience I recalled just how difficult it was for me to live in the outside world when I first left Attawapiskat as a boy. People in general were nice to me but I always felt like I didn’t quite fit in. Only my own family and friends who lived in the south spoke Cree, which meant that most of the time I was surrounded by a language and culture that was very different from the one I was raised in. As a result, I felt insecure and I had very low self-esteem. I guess I just did not feel that I was as good as all those white people who seemed to have everything.

Although at the time I was just a teenager in the 1990s I was living in a period where my Elders, family and friends back in Attawapiskat still had to use an outhouse and draw water from the river for daily use. We had no running water or sewer system back then and let’s face it that was not very long ago. I did what I could to make up for my feeling of low self-esteem. I had some money from a summer job back home so I bought all the most popular clothes to try and fit in. I did my best try to learn as much as I could about life through my high-school experience but I always felt like I just did not fit in.

I am grateful for the fantastic boarding parents and their families who I had back then. They really helped me more than they will ever know. Those days in high school in Timmins were not easy and often I just felt like giving up, but somehow one of my boarding parents or one of their children would sense this huge vulnerability in me and say or do the right thing for the moment.

I discovered way back then that life was mostly about people. Everything revolved around the interaction between so many people, at school, in the broader community and in the homes I visited. People can help each other or they can hurt one another. I also found out that the way people acted was mostly based on their experiences growing up and that helped me forgive many I met who were racist, bigoted and homophobic. I was never one to be pushed around easily but I was not a troublemaker either and mostly I withdrew from stressful situations. I turned the other cheek often.

Today, I feel a lot better about myself. It thrilled me to see that little Michael Tomagatick seems to be feeling good about himself these days too. I understand that it is not easy for young Native people from remote First Nations to fit into the society at large. They need lots of understanding and a hand up whenever possible. It seemed the perfect venue for me to run into my little Cree friend Mike and Pacific Nakogee, also a Grade 6 student from St. Paul’s.  In fact,she is my cousin Beverly Nakogee’s daughter.  So meeting them made my day.  They attended a recent workshop on building self-esteem conducted by Dave Jones. The message from that daylong workshop for hundreds of local school children still resounds in my mind: “Learn to feel good about yourself and allow others to feel good about themselves”. Meegwetch, Michael, Pacific and Dave.