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Review: Alexandra Shimo’s Invisible North is a call for justice

In Invisible North, Alexandra Shimo gives the sense that the community in Kashechewan First Nation is careening from trauma to trauma.

Alexandra Shimo/Dundurn

Invisible North: The Search for Answers on a Troubled Reserve
Alexandra Shimo

There is a trajectory of publishing as it relates to indigenous peoples and communities. Many indigenous advocates and community members would likely profess that indigenous stories – of communities, families, successes, challenges – are ones that now must be told by indigenous peoples. It's for this reason some people will not pick up Alexandra Shimo's Invisible North: The Search for Answers on a Troubled Reserve. That might be a mistake. In the complex, elemental and messy business of sharing space, the work can serve as a different on-ramp to discussions about colonization, economic evisceration and shared responsibility for an anti-colonialism movement.

When she travelled to the First Nation of Kashechewan in Ontario to investigate the 2005 E. coli outbreak, Shimo arrived a successful, healthy and curious investigative reporter. She left a changed person. The book, however, has little to do with the E. coli crisis and has much to do with the living conditions in the community that ultimately created a health crisis. (Spoiler alert: The First Nation/community supporters utilized the outbreak to leverage international attention for the standard of living and impact of Canada on the First Nation).

There is a crisis in Kashechewan. The water is just a glance into the breadth and depth of it. Metaphorically and actually, sick water serves to provide notice of the reach and impact of the ailment. What the actual crisis is is a much more painful truth: The trauma and damage of colonial invasion and neglect in First Nations are killing indigenous peoples.

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Coming out a year or so after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its Calls to Action, the book presents us with some difficult topics to be addressed in our reconciliation conversation. Starting with: who tells the story of the wreckage colonization creates? And ending with: What can be done?

The author is a good storyteller and the work is accessible and smart. The research is evident and the detail is engaging. Her authentic voice is both informative and challenging. But this story has a familiar arc. The telling of the stranger-in-a-strange-land story was earlier recorded in "captivity" narratives and has been the subject of many anthropological texts. As an indigenous child who grew up through books, how we looked under the white gaze was the only exposure I had to written pieces about indigenous peoples. To see it here, in this work, compounds some of the issues that are often raised when a non-indigenous person is granted "insider" status.

To create a body of work from that limited and finite period of time while others are still living that life, chosen by or for them, and for whom "escape" might mean a worsening of conditions, the book might seem exploitative or indulgent as it still relies on the "white gaze" to decode for us.

She refers to the "alien landscape" of the Kashechewan reserve, a notion many readers, in particular indigenous ones, may find difficult. She chose to live there for a finite period of time. Was (to some degree) shunned. Anxious. Felt unsafe. Had terrible food and terrible food habits. Drank. And drank some more. It feels dangerously close to "Any normal person would be impacted by this environment" (which both abnormalizes the indigenous home and normalizes her response to it).

What is missing is engagement with the understanding that her "visit" to a First Nation is a precarious privilege and that the racism inherent in the colonial regime is a particular assault on identity and indigeneity that she cannot and does not experience. In this regard, she may be read as a "poverty" tourist who documents her experience of deprivation from a position that is relatively empowered, as compared with most Kashechewan residents.

As a reporter, and an investigative one at that, Shimo grounds her work in responsible journalism. As one with an obligation to present the truth (and to some degree as someone excising the infection that is colonization), Shimo embraces her obligation. The problem is: There are many truths and many voices that should resonate in the telling of hard truths. One of the hard truths arising from this work is this: Some people are more likely to understand the illnesses and harms affecting indigenous peoples if settler empathy is triggered, which often happens when settlers experience similar or comparable harms to those experiencing the damage of settlement.

In this regard, one can suppose that the work stands as it is: a call for justice, help or understanding for peoples who are damaged by colonial violence.

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The work is important in that it gives voice to concerns as she observes and experiences them. She encounters the racialization evident and entrenched in the Indian Act, the lateral violence that indigenous peoples aim at each other, violence levied at outsiders, the incalculable pain entrenched in the ignorance about or ambivalence toward indigenous peoples' suffering, and substandard medical, food security and emergency-response systems.

You feel for her and you can sense the struggle she has to maintain some semblance of normalcy – a space within which she retains the dignity and hope she came to the project with. Lack of access to goods, services, familiarity and hope compounds and renders her anxious. The cloying nature of communal living and the resulting rumours, the distress signalled in the body by daily exposure to violence, a siege mentality, illness and impoverishment – all are discussed in a number of contexts. Shimo gives the reader the sense that the community is careening from trauma to trauma.

In order to provide some semblance of balance, she examines and details the cause and the effect – in this case, in the first person. She writes of this in Chapter 8: "The reserve is making me sick." Shimo is quite honest about the impact that living in the community is having on her emotional and physical health (notably, when threatened/believing herself to be, she responds violently to a child and shoves her). She manages the stress through self-medication (the stress includes having to see the cutting and suicide scars on children's arms). She experiences mood swings. Her body breaks down. She gets ringworm. In some sense, it is a survival narrative.

The problem is, indigenous actuality is almost completely devoid of the privilege the author has. The privilege of a voice. The privilege of audience. The privilege of being able to go to therapy. The privilege of being able to walk away in the face of the violence – which is not actually aimed at her. Her trauma is not so much a personal one but may be more akin to that experienced by first responders. That doesn't detract from her experience or make it less valuable. It just bears discussion that proximity is in some way contingent trauma.

Where her work shines, though, is in the deconstruction of the systems, policies and philosophies developed by and created to support the oppression of indigenous peoples. Her colonial compass is often spot-on and her work serves notice that colonization is an intentional and ongoing process, that it is violent and that its impacts have the potentiality to harm everyone (while disproportionately negatively affecting indigenous peoples). She identifies the health and other hazards at play in many First Nations communities (mouldy homes; rejected employment/development plans; cutting and suicide; multiple inconclusive surveys or studies to address flooding and potential relocation; the normalization of crisis; the impact of collective suffering on the nation; and dependency created by Canadian authorities, who reject their own responsibility).

Shimo's perceptions of structural inequalities and the impact they have on indigenous nations are thoughtful and represent a way in which non-indigenous actors/authors can understand and unpack colonization's impact on indigenous peoples. Even those who are living economically impoverished lives speak to Shimo about sustainability: sustenance and survival as improbable goals in a community without employment and with a decimated economy.

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As an introduction to a harrowing discussion of colonial damage, the work has value, as the author captures the precarious positioning of empathy for indigenous peoples and action related to the colonial machinery as it chews through indigenous peoples' lives.

Shimo is clear that she has surpassed the permission she received from the leadership to conduct research: She was allowed into the community by the leadership because she requested access in order to pursue the E. coli issue. She discusses operating outside of that permission. She also is aware she broke the law of the nation by drinking alcohol (as the reserve is self-designated "dry"). These two facts may raise concern about the ethics of the work. Presumably, the author believed that the human story was more important than the water story (and that it, itself was a piece of a larger puzzle).

In the end, she has medical assistance to allow her to deal with the post-traumatic stress disorder of living on reserve. It is a grim reminder, when you think of it: Indigenous peoples don't get post-trauma treatment because we are still living under traumatizing circumstances. Also, medical care to address the trauma of being indigenous and living under colonial violence is not likely to receive treatment or be eligible for payment.

There is a potentially perilous balancing act in this work. The author tells us indigenous trauma that is event-based/quantifiable will be readily accepted by the public as unfair and requiring immediate remedy (i.e. E. coli-contaminated water). Observable, measurable actions or events garner attention. Trauma that is enduring, ongoing and difficult to assess empirically does not garner outrage or, in the minds of many Canadians, require remedy. In these cases, the perception is that the loss, problem and damage is perceived as part of the "indigenous normal."

There is a real danger here of problematizing indigenous peoples to garner empathy and support, when what we are talking about are actually human-rights violations of an enduring nature. A further danger is that longer-term issues (such as food security and scarcity, racism entrenched in systems and legislation) become assigned a lesser value as part of "regular life" and, as a result, continue to plague indigenous communities with Canada assuming no responsibility. To her credit, Shimo is aware of this and points it out to the reader. She is smart in the way, presumably, that war zone-embedded media are sadly educated by fire.

The book is a worthwhile read for those who are still assessing the impact of colonization on indigenous lands and reserves. Interested readers might also want to look for first-person narratives in addressing the first-person experience of colonization.

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