The Wetum Road: Why young people leave remote northern towns

By John Michael McGrath - Published on April 5, 2016
Moosonee's water tower on a blue sky
The James Bay region has a high proportion of young people, but many leave to pursue education and opportunity elsewhere.

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TVO.org’s John Michael McGrath travelled north on the Wetum Road to visit the James Bay communities of Moosonee and Moose Factory. Read more here.

MOOSONEE, Ont. — Beth Baxter wants to study to be an instrumentation and control technician, but the closest program is in Haileybury, 400 kilometres south of her hometown of Moosonee.

She’s leaving this year to study and won’t be returning to Moosonee for work when she graduates.

“There just aren’t a lot of opportunities up here, compared to cities,” Baxter, 18 says.

In Moosonee, like anywhere else, the road into town is also the road out — it’s just more significant when the town has only one road.

Rural Ontario has a hard time hanging on to young people at the best of times. For northern communities not connected to the rest of the provincial economy, that reality is even starker. For many young people in the area, preparing for a career after high school means preparing to leave home and not come back.

Baxter plans to look outside Ontario’s borders. “It’s too flat,” she says.

She is just one young person among Moosonee’s population of 1,700, but hers is not an uncommon sentiment in a community that is a seven-hour drive from the nearest all-season road. The largest employers in town are forms of government or social service agencies; aside from the Victor diamond mine near Attawapiskat, the resource economy isn’t a particularly large presence in the James Bay region.

Moosonee Mayor Wayne Taipale acknowledges his community doesn’t offer the kind of opportunities people can find down south, but emphasizes the problems it faces are no different across the north.

“Either you like it or you don’t. We have lots of people who come here for work — hospital staff, OPP, you name it — who love it and stay here,” Taipale says.

The difference for Moosonee is that young people make up a much larger chunk of its population. The median age is 27.6, according to Statistics Canada, and the percentage of people under the age of 15 is 28.9 per cent, compared with an average of 17 per cent elsewhere in Ontario. That’s compared to a median age of just over 40 years for the province generally, and older for some other northern towns. Cochrane, for example, has a median age of 43.3. Even a fast-growing town in the Greater Toronto Area such as Milton has a median age of 34.1.

Caring for a young population so far from the bulk of the provincial economy poses particular challenges, whether they decide to build a post-school life at home or away.

Educating the young people of Moosonee is Angela Tozer’s job. As principal of the Northern Lights Secondary School, she oversees both students from Moosonee and off-reserve Moose Cree students. Forget school buses: for some 60 students at Northern Lights, getting across the Moose River daily outside of winter often includes boats and helicopters.

“Sometimes what we do here isn’t perceived as valuable. It’s perceived as better in the south, and that annoys me to no end. It’s not better, it’s different,” Tozer says.

 “Different” describes both the place where she’s made her career for 26 years and the lengths to which she and her colleagues go to provide a full-spectrum education for their students.

At Northern Lights, Tozer and her staff try to offer as complete a package of educational and health services as possible. They run a school store for lunches — the alternatives off-site are either too far or don’t offer healthy options — and technical classes in everything from welding steel boat hulls together to converting old refrigerators into smokers for food.

They’ve taken students on trips out of the community, to southern Ontario for events such as hockey tournaments, and further afield. (The school trip this year was to Costa Rica.) But that’s the tension of her job: preparing students to pursue whatever opportunities they choose means, for many, they’re being prepared to leave the community altogether.

Michael Etherington was born in Moosonee and spent much of his childhood bouncing around northern Ontario before studying at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. He settled in Toronto five years ago, and understands the challenge young people face in deciding whether to stay in or leave the communities where they were born.

“It’s a big, personal question any of us ask ourselves when you’re from the north,” Etherington says. “You say, ‘I’d love to go back on the land, go hunting,’ that type of thing. Then, when you get back you see the reality.”

Etherington, now 30 and working as a cultural program co-ordinator at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, says the lack of opportunity in the north contributes to social issues such as mental health crises and addiction.

“One of the challenges is that when we talk about economic development, in the north we tend to talk about resource jobs — mining and forestry. But those only have so much capacity and lifespan, in terms of jobs,” he says. “And then we promote education. People go south only to get educated for a job we don’t have in the area.”

Etherington and Tozer both point to one way to make young people feel more connected to their homes: growing stronger connections to their culture.

“If you have a strong cultural identity, you feel at home with your family,” Etherington says. His work brings him into contact with many aboriginal people who want to reconnect with a culture they’ve been separated from.

“Plenty of our people are born in cities, but you can see they really want to connect with the land-based knowledge of the north.”

Tozer echoes this sentiment.

“It comes down to connecting with the lifestyle, valuing the lifestyle. If your youth connect to the culture, they’ll come back,” she says.

Whatever schools or employers do to try to keep young people in the north, there will always be some barriers to preparing them for the outside world.

“I spent a year at school in Ottawa, and the school population was 1,200 students,” says Baxter. “Being around so many unfamiliar people, you lose that sense of belonging.”

For her part, Baxter says she’s just not built for an isolated community — especially one where the arrival of cell phone service last year has added a social media layer to the small-town gossip mill.

“People already know everything about you, and it’s even harder to keep a secret here,” she says.

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