Images of Our First Nations        

There are many images of first nations peoples including negative images, romantic images, racist images and many other portrayals that are inaccurate or lacking in nuance. Capturing the reality of first nations life is difficult, especially for outsiders. They do face unique hardships and challenges and it is difficult to capture aboriginal peoples as they are. That was the task undertaken by Photosensitive in 2005.

Photo by Craig Chivers

Why First Nations?

First Nations communities have traditions spanning thousands of years, influencing the national culture, while preserving their own identity. More recently, the housing conditions and standards of living within these communities have come under direct scrutiny. There was no better time for PhotoSensitive to drop into five of Ontario's most remote First Nations communities and show the images of beauty and hope to all of Canada.

In 2005, Aboriginal children in the northern communities were, on average, five years behind their counterparts in the south when it came to reading and writing. To combat this discrepancy, Aboriginal Summer literacy camps were set up for First Nations youth, a project initiated by Ontario's then lieutenant-governor, James Bartleman.

Bartleman, a member of the Mnjikaning First Nation, had grown up in tough circumstances in Port Carling, Ontario. When he became lieutenant-governor, he was dismayed by the high rate of young suicide among native teens and felt literacy might be the key to better mental health and self-esteem.

Photosensitive, Capturing Images of First Nations and the Summer of Hope Project

Andrew Stawicki, PhotoSensitive founding photographer, was eager to get on board. He quickly assembled a team that he knew would capture impactful images of the First Nations literacy camps. The images reveal the children's utter joy in the reading, the relaxing, the swimming and the camaraderie they found at camp.

Now, teenagers and young adults who live in First Nations communities are becoming staff at the camps. James Bartleman says an entire generation of Aboriginal youth in remote communities are feeling the benefits of literacy and summer fun. The images of the First Nations literacy camps give us an opportunity to witness the resilience of these communities and to share their stories.

Photos and stories from the Summer of Hope project

The photo below captures the change made possible by the program. This was from Andrew's second trip to the camp, a few years after he had spent a week capturing images at the First Nations community at Pikangikum, known to have the highest suicide rate in Canada. Says Andrew, "I realized that the change in their faces was the result of creating interest in their lives, by focusing and improving their reading skills. I hope that more First Nations youth will have the same opportunity next summer."

Photo taken by Andrew Stawicki, from North Caribou Lake, Pikangikum

Although many first nations communities are very isolated there are both typical and unique connections made by the people. Below, we see children's hands working together to create a circle of connection. Photographer Craig Chivers says these first nations kids "demonstrated a determined curiosity and close connection with the global village through the internet television. It's very apparent how important literacy is for these children. Literacy gives them the tools to not only interpret and understand the cultural messages of the global village, but it also allows them to give voice to their own experiences and share them with the world."

Photo by Craig Chivers

Patti Gower remembers taking this photo and remembers being embraced by the First Nations community of Muskrat Lake.

"My experience with children is that they are truly open to the world, but unfortunate reality and circumstance often dictate that the world is not open to them. I would like to pass along my sincere thanks for the Honourable James Bartleman for his service to Canadian First Nations youth, and for recognizing the dire need for all to have access to books. His undertaking is breaking down barriers, not only for native youth, but for all of us."

Photo taken by Patti Gower, from Muskrat Dam.

This image by Peter Bregg (right, taken at Kingfisher Lake) of a young First Nations boy perched on a windowsill silhouetted while reading a book is what Summer of Hope is all about. In 2005, 365 children participated and each one went to camp for three weeks. They wrote in journals, they read books, they played sports and did crafts.

"If they can read, they can learn. If they can learn, they can make a life for themselves." – James Bartleman

Today, more than 40 First Nations Summer Literacy Camps operate in Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec, with one of Canada's most respected literacy organization, Frontier College, organizing the volunteers.

Every summer, between sixty and one hundred campers sign up in each of the remote communities, ready to read, swim, play and just have some fun.

These PhotoSensitive images of First Nations youth will always remain in the hearts of the lucky five photographers involved.

Photo taken by Steve Simon, from Fort Albany

Kingfisher Lake first nations. Photo by Peter Bregg

More Images from the First Nations' Summer of Hope