I was saddened recently when I heard the news of a passenger plane crash near the community of Nibinamik First Nation in northwestern Ontario. I am familiar with this community and I know that the local leadership works hard to build a good place for their people to live in. They have created and developed positive programs in many areas to help their local members.
Flying is the only way to get in and out of a remote First Nation community. In the winter time, many communities have winter roads to be able to visit other nearby communities or gain access to highway systems to the outside world. However, travelling by passenger plane is the easiest and most efficient way to visit southern towns and cities. Regular flights arrive and depart from remote Native communities all across northern Ontario on a daily basis. During the winter time, these flights also have to fly in harsh cold weather and in blowing snowstorms. There are thousands of flights that take off and land in these communities every year. Sometimes I wonder why there are not more accidents taking place.
In an isolated Native community, the airplane is the lifeline to the rest of the world. In my own home community of Attawapiskat, the airport was the centre of activity for my friends and I when we were young boys. After school, we raced to the airport to see the plane arrive. We watched as local passengers or sometimes strangers stepped off the plane. We wished that we were one of the lucky few boarding the flight for a trip south.
When I was seven I broke my leg and had to fly to Moose Factory to receive treatment. This was my first flight. It was difficult and I was transported on a stretcher without being able to see out a passenger window. Still I was thrilled to be in the air. My first healthy experience as a passenger took place when I was 10. My sister Janie and I went on a short holiday to Fort Albany First Nation, just a 20-minute flight south of Attawapiskat. I had watched many flights leave our community and always wondered what it was like to be one of the passengers. Finally the big day arrived and I was not disappointed. I was awestruck at the opportunity to take a regular flight and watch the world from a bird’s eye view out the window. Later on when I attended high school in Timmins and then in North Bay, flying became a regular experience that I grew accustomed to.
Aircraft accidents happen from time to time and I don’t react much when I read about them in newspapers or watch news items on television. However, when it hits close to home I am shocked. I understood what it meant to lose seven individuals from a remote community. It is very devastating for a small First Nation to lose any of its members. Everyone is so connected. People in the community grow up with each other and most tend to stay in town so there is a closeness that binds us together. We have a history of living on the land in harsh conditions so we must depend on each other for survival. This closeness has stayed with us over the centuries.
When someone dies in a small, remote First Nation community it affects everyone and the void is never really filled. When a tragedy occurs that takes seven people from a close knit community it is very difficult to deal with. My prayers and condolences go out to the First Nation and to the families of the seven community members and the pilot who died in this tragedy. I know that Nibinamik is a vibrant and strong community that will heal in time from this loss.