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Shining a Light on First Nations Poverty

If you have never lived in isolation and poverty it is hard to imagine exactly what it is like. It is easy for those living a life of relative privilege to look down their nose and place blame on the victim, which is what most will instinctively do. Growing up in a northern community, my family was better off than some but not as well off as most. This placed me in a precarious position in the middle of two dramatically different layers of the socio-economic strata of society. When my family would go to the First Nation to visit relatives, we would stay in their homes without running water and other amenities that most of us take for granted.

What I quickly learned is that the poor are generally oblivious to their poverty and see the accompanying social ills as normal life. When you are born into poverty and all around you are poor, you grow up unaware of any alternative lifestyle. The first time you are exposed to a more affluent lifestyle, such as those of the urban middle-classes, you do not immediately aspire to be a part of it, as most would assume. Instead, you see it as something very alien in which you do not belong. This fear of the unknown and unfamiliar drives many First Nations people back to their home communities.

I count myself as one of the fortunate few who managed to raise themselves up from humble beginnings on a poor First Nation and I consider myself very blessed. I can only attribute my success to having positive role models, perseverance and an attitude of personal empowerment and responsibility. I often wonder what my life would have looked like if I had not been exposed to the opportunities and circumstances that steered my life away from poverty. I found such a glimpse of that life in the pages of Richard Van Camp's The Lesser Blessed. The novel paints a portrait of a Northern First Nations youth coming of age in the lower socio-economic strata of society while coming to terms with a horrific past filled with trauma and abuse.

Van Camp writes from the perspective of someone who has lived in the north and has experienced the interplay of the haves and the have-nots which is further complicated by the cross sectioning of First Nations, Metis and European cultures. After reading the novel, I honestly thought that the protagonist could have been me, had my family not been transferred out of the north when I was young. Even those who have not experienced the northern life can immerse themselves into the lives of Van Camp's characters. The Lesser Blessed shines a light on life in the resource rich north, an integral but often overlooked corner of the Canadian cultural tapestry.

The novel has been adapted to film by First Generation Films and is directed by Anita Doron. It also stars Hollywood actor and social activist Benjamin Bratt. The film holds true to the novel in most respects and the landscape and infrastructure presented allows viewers to delve deeply into the culture of Northern poverty. The story itself in either medium is a gritty, no-holds-barred, behind the scenes look into the life of an average First Nations youth. They are the unloved, misunderstood, undesirable individuals who demographically make up the future of our nation. They truly are The Lesser Blessed.

While the effects of poverty influence every aspect of one's life, all human beings have the innate desires to belong and to be loved. The greatest barriers to the pursuit of happiness are often those we create for ourselves. Social ills often associated with poverty such as domestic violence, substance abuse, broken homes and neglect are accepted as a normal part of life. Within this perfect storm of circumstances First Nations children have to grow up and find their purposes. There are many casualties along the way who die from suicide, drugs and alcohol, domestic violence and the myriad health problems that stem from a life of poverty.

Something that many of us will fail to see in all this despair is also something that I found between the lines of Van Camp's writing. It is something that compels people from all walks of life and transcends every culture of humanity. It is something that any of us can create and inspire. It is also the only cure from the crushing weight of poverty amongst First Nations and all others who suffer the affliction. Hope.

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