They flew in to photograph the very first Aboriginal literacy camps 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 youth suicide among native teens and felt literacy might be the key to better mental health and self-esteem. He had always been encouraged to read as a child and he believed that was what had helped him move forward in life.
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. Their suicide rates were ten times the national average. The lieutenant-governor felt if he could set up some summer camps that focused on reading and writing, along with sports and crafts, the children would not get into trouble during the summer break - they'd stay engaged, happy and healthy. He secured a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and asked PhotoSensitive to bear witness to the experiment.
The images of first nations children reveal their utter joy in the reading, the relaxing, the swimming and the camaraderie they found at camp. During that summer, there was not one suicide in the five communities where camps were open - and yet there were suicides in nearby villages. Bartleman felt he was onto something big - and the next summer he opened thirty camps. When his successor, David Onley, took over as lieutenant-governor in 2007, he expressed a loyalty to the program and the PhotoSensitive video celebrating Summer of Hope is still proudly displayed on the lieutenant-governor's website.
That pleases Andrew Stawicki.
"I remember being at a big meeting with James Bartleman - just chatting. He had been trying to get us to do a project together for a while and this time, I said, 'Yes! I can help you now.' I said we would send a photographer to each camp location, but I warned it would be expensive: $2,500 for a flight - more expensive than flying to Europe. But then he found the grant and we found the stories. We took some beautiful photographs that we're still very proud of - they show how special the camps are and how much the children love to be there. We produced the beautiful DVD and thousands of people saw it at BCE Place in downtown Toronto. We brought north and south together," said Andrew.
Today, more than forty Aboriginal 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.
In 2005, counsellors were flown in from the south. Now, teenagers and young adults who live in northern communities are filling those jobs and Bartleman says an entire generation of Aboriginal youth in remote communities is feeling the benefits of literacy and summer fun. There is hope that this will show the way to alleviating or eliminating childhood poverty in the reserves.
"If they can read, they can learn. If they can learn, they can make a life for themselves. In 2005, 365 children participated and each one went to camp for three weeks. They wrote in journals, they read books, they played sports, did crafts, and the joy, the joy in those faces: it's a treat to see," said Bartleman.
As always, there was a photographic exhibition to celebrate Summer of Hope and this time a DVD was produced to put the faces of the children onto a big screen. Patti Gower's iconic photo of a little boy with a bird tattoo on his cheek opened the show. She remembers being embraced by the community of Muskrat Lake.
"I flew in on a tiny plane, circling round a bit to get past a thundercloud. I am a very shy person and to drop into a community as 'The Outsider' is always hard for me. But the first night, I went for a walk and saw a teepee in someone's backyard. A woman waved me over, 'Come in, come in!' The elders had just come home with whitefish and the grandmother was preparing it in the traditional way, cooking it inside the teepee and I just thought, 'Oh my gosh! How am I so lucky to be here, to see this?' I often have to fight down this feeling that I am being invasive. Should I take this shot or that shot? But these people were so welcoming and I wanted to show the truth. That's often the challenge: to get past stereotypes and be as truthful and revealing as you can be.
"If I didn't have to make an income, this is all I would do. This work gives me a window into the world. People invite you in - and then I get to reveal it to others. There has not been one project I've done in twenty years with PhotoSensitive that I've thought, 'Oh, let me out of here!' - and we've worked in desperate circumstances, recording some very challenging reality.
"My camera gives me opportunity and purpose - it justifies being there. I never want to be seen as a voyeur. I always grapple with that. I hope my pictures help reveal truth. That sounds like a cliché but when I was a little kid, if I drove by an accident, I'd look the other way. This work has forced me to look. To look, think and make up my mind about what is important. And the thing I have learned from these very intimate moments is that people are resilient. It's the resilience of people that keeps me going to the corners of the earth. It gives me the opportunity to look beyond my own life. And to try, in my own small way, to tell stories that need to be told," said Patti.
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