We're all in this together.
We profoundly believe that solutions are about people. Solutions are
devised by people and for people, and are the inevitable result of our experiences as
people. Solutions only work if accepted, implemented and maintained by people.
People are social creatures, and occasionally brilliant. Connections allow
that brilliance to be recognized, and frequently improve on the initial idea. In short,
connections between people make us better, and result in success on many levels.
We would like to share this story by Barbara Florio Graham (reproduced here with
by Barbara Florio Graham (copyright 2009)
This year marks the 40th anniversary of my first contact with the Sandy Lake First Nation
in far northwestern Ontario. At a United Church Women's meeting in Gatineau, we read a letter
sent from a minister who had just arrived in Sandy. He described the appalling conditions he
found: uninsulated houses heated by wood-burning 40-gallon oil drums, no running water, no
sewage disposal, no library at the school, no hymnals for the church choir.
The UCW responded by agreeing to send a couple of boxes of old hymnals and Sunday school
books, then moved on to discuss the spring bazaar.
But I couldn’t dismiss this plea from the north so easily. I contacted both the minister
in Sandy Lake and the Department of Indian Affairs, and set in motion an adventure I could
never have imagined.
That summer, Violet Meekis, a 16-year-old who was scheduled to go “out” to school in the
fall, came to Gatineau for two weeks that ended up changing her life, and the lives of her family.
In 1969, education in Sandy Lake ended at grade 9. Students were then sent “south”, to
high schools with room to accommodate them in communities where boarding homes were also available.
Placement was random, so youngsters who had never been off the reserve were often the only native
students in their grades, while friends and relatives were sent to other towns miles away.
Violet’s arrival in Gatineau shocked her into a world of bubble baths and fresh milk,
elevators, traffic, television, and restaurants. She visited EXPO in Montreal, the National
Arts Centre, a dairy farm, museums. She shook hands with Prime Minister Trudeau on Parliament
Hill and watched Apollo 11 land on the moon!
Unlike most native high school students, for whom the culture shock was too severe to bear,
she made it through grade 10 and graduated two years later.
Violet returned to Sandy Lake, married and became the school secretary. Joining a pilot
program for native teacher training, she took classes by distance learning, then earned her
B.A., and became an assistant principal.
Meanwhile, Indian Affairs decided to allow native students to select where they wanted to
attend high school, so in 1977 Violet’s brother, Joe, came to Ottawa, living in Gatineau for
the first semester to adjust to urban life in a “family” setting, as his sister had eight years
Joe is now the Executive Director of the Sandy Lake First Nation. He oversaw the reserve’s
new infrastructure, including roads, water and sewage lines, and two large generators which
provide electricity to all the homes.
I kept in touch with all the family over the years, visiting Sandy Lake to meet Violet’s
parents and siblings in 1975. Violet and her sister came here for a week’s holiday a few years
ago, and Joe arranges to have dinner with me every time he's in Ottawa for a conference. Many
others, including Joe’s wife, have become teachers. Violet’s oldest son earned his B.A. and
is now teaching at another First Nation in the area.
We read about the problems on native reserves, but seldom hear the success stories. Sandy
Lake is one of them.
NOTE: This article was originally published in the West Quebec Post in 2009.
Barbara Florio Graham is the author of Five Fast Steps to Better Writing, Five Fast Steps to
Low-Cost Publicity, and Mewsings/Musings. Her website is