Niall MacGiolla Bhuí, PhD
No talk is ever given without first indicating your humility. “I am an ignorant man; I am a poor man” – all the talks start this way – “I don’t know nearly as much as you men sitting around here, but I would like to offer my humble opinion”, and then he’ll knock you down with logic and wisdom.
– Allen C. Quetone, Kiowa
A Relational Approach
I’d like to mark September 1st by reflecting on a book I was senior author on several years ago with three colleagues as so much health research is now being published with a focus on First Nations peoples in Canada and Travellers here in Ireland. Back in the day, I had been waiting many years to set foot on a First Nations Reserve so it was with some trepidation that I drove the forty-five minute journey down to the exotic sounding Elsipogtog in the company of two friends on a rainy August day. Firstly, it was a longer drive from our college base compared to visiting Halting Sites in Ireland where I could visit one in less than five minutes drive from my own work location. I suppose my first impression was that the Reserve was physically very large. At the time, I wasn’t really sure if it is the fact that there is simply so much land in Canada compared to Ireland.
My young son, Conor, was as we say in Ireland, ‘mad with excitement’ in the back of the SUV as we made our first journey and I had been telling him stories of what I knew of First Nations peoples, their cultures, legends and the struggles they have had to endure over the centuries. In any case, Margaret first collected a colleague who is First Nations and we went on a tour of her Reserve – her home.
I was immediately taken aback by the difference in housing on the Reserve – just in terms of the disparity in size and condition. Some houses were very recently constructed and to a large scale whilst others were much older and in dilapidated condition. A major difference between the Reserve and a Halting Site in the Midlands of Ireland (and, any Halting Site in Ireland for that matter) was the several buildings on site including, to name but some, a Health and Wellness Centre, a School, a Gym and a Treatment Centre. These buildings were, in the main, well kept.
We were very fortunate on our subsequent visits to the Reserve to be invited into people’s homes so we got a real sense of daily lived lives as we came to share coffee with our new friends. As with our Canadian friends observations with regard to Travellers, I was struck by the amount of religious statues and paintings in houses around the Reserve. To my embarrassment, I was unaware that Catholicism is the major religion practiced and there was a curious mix of what I might call Catholic statues and frames sitting alongside spiritual or traditional statues, artefacts and frames something one would not see, at all, in Ireland. This may be explained by the fact that one of the Councillors there at the time was called Joseph Ward, another Wilfred Ward and, yet another, Emerson Francis. Such Irish names in the midst of much more traditional First Nations ones was a great surprise to me.
My personal highlight, for sure, was attending two Mi’kmaq Pow Wows on the Eel Ground Reserve. I found the Pow Wow a truly spiritual experience. The drumming and chanting, on site, with First Nations peoples themselves was amazing. It was colourful and full of sound with strict rules observed such as the ceremony being stopped if a feather falls to the ground from any of the dresses or costumes. One thing Susan and I did smile about was the mix of the ‘traditional’ with the ‘new’ – for example, seeing Stuart, a male dancer, dressed in full traditional costume with a pair of Oakley sunglasses lining up for an espresso post dance.
All in, I was not confronted with anything on the Reserve that I found deeply shocking or upsetting. As with other cultures I have visited in North Africa or Europe, people were just living their lives as best they could under the circumstances they found themselves in. There were inequalities apparent as with any community and there were those who were taking a more and those taking a less active role in active change – as with any community.
Conor got to play with First Nations children for hours on end as we conducted interviews with their family members and we got to meet and be hosted by families including grandparents, parents and children. For that alone, the research trip out to Canada was worth it. We asked Conor how he felt about the First Nations children. “Aren’t they the same as the kids at home?” was his reply. Out of the mouths of babes…
 For our Irish readers, there is a total land area of 9,976,140 sq km with 3 people per square km in Canada and 70,280 square km with 54 people per square km in Ireland according to the Compact Atlas of the World (2004) so it really is a matter of scale. They say that Ireland is green, but so is New Brunswick.
 Eel ground has a population of about 440 people and 154 housing units and sits on about 1072 Hectares.