02/13/2015 09:30 EST | Updated 04/15/2015 05:59 EDT

An Invitation to Understand This Remote First Nations Community


by: Craig and Marc Kielburger

For the youth of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation community, the nearest high school is hundreds of kilometres away by plane. If you break a bone, it's another flight for treatment--the hospital's X-ray machine hasn't worked for two years.

But despite the challenges they face, none of the residents of this remote fly-in northern Ontario community--known simply as KI--would abandon their homes and land. And they're inviting all Canadians to come on a "reconciliation visit" to live with them for a week so we can understand why.

As Craig prepares to defend Canadian author, Thomas King's, The Inconvenient Indian, on CBC's Canada Reads in March, we've been thinking a lot about breaking barriers, which is the theme of this year's book debate. It seems one of the greatest barriers to addressing the problems facing our aboriginal communities is that most Canadians don't intuitively understand those problems. They're too far away--hidden in remote communities like KI.

Perhaps if more people could see with their own eyes, Canada might discover the will for change--as did a very high-profile circle of women this past September.

The group that went on the most recent, and little-known, visit in KI included Her Royal Highness The Countess of Wessex (wife of Queen's Elizabeth's youngest son Prince Edward), Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, incoming Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Vicki Heyman, the wife of the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, and Sybil Veenman, former senior vice-president of Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold. They spend a few days in the community--and what they saw changed them.

Veenman tells us that, in her job as a mining executive, she had visited many developing communities around the world and witnessed the challenges they faced. "But to see it here in Ontario is an eye opening experience."

Although the homes in KI were a considerable improvement over the tin-roofed shacks she saw in communities overseas, Veenman was still shocked at the issues of overcrowding. "I was surprised by the extent of the issue," she adds.

The visitors saw the hospital's broken X-ray machine. They heard how, without a high school, only one in 10 local youth will complete their high school diploma.

But what really struck the visitors was the attitude of KI youth who, despite their community's conditions, have not given up hope for change. "I was really amazed and impressed by their enthusiasm," Veenman says.

It is the youth of KI who conceived and who have driven the reconciliation visit initiative. They're now turning their energy to getting their community its own high school.

By spending time in the community listening, hearing people share their stories, history and traditions, the visitors came to truly understand the connection between the community and the land. "Even the youth, they all value the tie to the land and their traditions," Veenman says.

What they saw and learned in northern Ontario has turned these women into activists. They are sharing their experiences, and they continue to meet regularly to discuss what else they can do.

"If, in my capacity, I can help shine a light on these communities... and the potential that they could have, then I do so willingly," the Countess told an audience at Nipissing University in North Bay after the visit.

Veenman is encouraging Canadians to take KI up on its invitation. "If more people did a reconciliation visit, they'd understand better." (The next KI visit takes place July 17 to 23, and is open to all Canadians--although the available spaces are filling up fast. Contact

Every year, hundreds of young Canadians travel with us to visit and work in developing communities overseas. Invariably the experience--seeing with their own eyes the challenges and meeting extraordinary people--sparks a passion for positive change. If we are to tear down the barriers between Canada's aboriginal and non-aboriginal people and address the challenges in communities like KI, we need to spark that passion here.

This is the second in a four part series on aboriginal people and issues.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.