Image source: ONTARIO TOURISM MARKETING PARTNERSHIP CORPORATION
This piece was previously published on Lakehead University’s site.
My name is Elizabeth Venditti and I am in my final year of the Master of Public Health program, specializing in Indigenous and Northern Health. To start off, I am a city girl! Having been born and raised and currently living in the Ottawa region, visiting or even moving to Northern Ontario has never been on my list of things to do until Summer 2017. This summer I embarked on an adventure like no other (surprise) visiting my family and friends in Northern Ontario and Winnipeg, Manitoba.
My trip began when I departed Ottawa for Toronto and then onto Thunder Bay on August 8, 2017. To my surprise, the band Magic! was also on my flight and sat in the row in front of me to Thunder Bay; they performed at the Thunder Bay Live on the Waterfront (as part of the ONTour) on August 9, 2017.
When I landed in Thunder Bay, I realized that this was probably the smallest airport I have flown to in my travels. The drive from Thunder Bay to Fort Frances was interesting and the scenery was full of many trees and some lakes. I was surprised that there were no public washroom facilities on the highway drive from Thunder Bay to Fort Frances for travelers and thus reduced my water intake. Upon arriving in Fort Frances, the scenery was amazing along with the lake views that surrounded the area. On my first day, I had the privilege of visiting a dental clinic and struck up a conversation with a hygienist about where patients went if they needed to see an oral and maxillofacial surgeon; patients would be referred to either Thunder Bay or Winnipeg. I also inquired if there was an orthodontist in Fort Frances and she said no but that the general dentist was able to do some orthodontic work and would also refer patients to Thunder Bay or Winnipeg for more specialized cases.
I was equally surprised to discover that Fort Frances had a Starbucks and made a recommendation to Starbucks corporate that they need to send a scanner to this location so that customers do not have to read out their Starbucks rewards number each time they place an order using the mobile app; employees concurred as they have repeatedly requested a scanner for their location. I also wrote to Walmart corporate and indicated that they needed to bring a Walmart Supercentre to Fort Frances so that residents can have more of a variety, choices, and selection when it comes to purchasing groceries as there is currently only one main supermarket in Fort Frances, Safeway, while the Walmart only provides basic grocery items. I noticed that the grocery prices at Safeway were slightly higher than what I would see in Ottawa. For example, some of the more specialized dairy-free desserts that I may buy at home were roughly $5 more expensive.
After spending a few days in Fort Frances, I excitedly traveled to Dryden on August 13 where I surprised my cousins from Sioux Lookout with my visit. When we arrived in Dryden, to meet up with them for a picnic at Blue Lake Provincial Park, I crouched down in the back of the SUV and covered up with a blanket. My little cousins were informed that there was a package for them in the SUV and so they were rather excited to discover what it was. They initially thought it was a puppy but when they removed the blanket, they were very surprised and quite excited with joy to find out that it was I! For years, I had said that I would never visit Sioux Lookout because it was not exactly a tourist destination and coming from the big city, what would I do in Sioux Lookout? They could not believe that I was actually in Sioux Lookout!! Following the day at the park, we trekked to Sioux Lookout where we spent one night. In the short amount of time, we went wild blueberry picking which was a neat experience as I did not pack prepared for wild blueberry picking and as my cousin put it I looked like a hot girl! Sadly, I said goodbye the following morning and returned to Fort Frances to continue my travels.
My next big adventure came when we traveled to Winnipeg on August 15 where I surprised two more friends with a visit. It was also my first time in Winnipeg and the drive was a rather rural, picturesque view of Ontario, Minnesota, and Manitoba. It was definitely an experience like no other and a memorable one, which included traveling on more rural roads with no public restroom facilities for many miles. It was quite a relief when we happened upon a Tim Hortons in Steinbach, Manitoba, as we had not seen a rest area for hours!!!
The highlight of my trip came when we visited The Gentle Bear Man in Emo, Ontario. This was a venture like no other where I bottle-fed, played with and pet a three-month-old raccoon, Ricky. I also got to feed a grizzly bear, Hannah Montana, three times, while her cub had climbed up a tree; she ate two dessert twinkie pieces right from my fingers and later licked sunflower seeds right from the palm of my hand. Her tongue felt so soft against my hand. I was so excited after this memorable experience and the honour and awe of being so close to the wild animals that I did not even time to feel scared, afraid or freaked out.
As my time in Fort Frances came to end, I felt sad knowing that I would miss this town and my daily walks along the Rainy River. On one of my walks, I climbed the Rainy River Lookout Tower (alone), which is 100 feet tall and 115 steps to the top (one way) with a magnificent view of the Ontario and Minnesota side. I also walked into the Rainy River Medical Centre, which is the local hospital in Fort Frances where I wondered the halls and compared it to the large, urban hospitals. I noticed that this hospital had a telemedicine unit where patients would go when they had telemedicine consultations with physicians and specialists that were not in the area. I even toured the Fort Frances Museum & Cultural Centre where I saw the first dentist chair used in Fort Frances! Even the friends I stayed within Fort Frances had to travel to Thunder Bay for a medical appointment and I also learned about the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care’s Northern Health Travel Grant which is available to patients who have to travel at least 100-kilometres one-way road distance to have access to a medical care centre or medical specialist that is not available in their local community (Ministry of Health & Long-Term Care, 2015).
My vacation concluded with the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Symposium “Back to Our Roots” at Quetico College School, August 22-24, 2017 where it started off on the wrong foot with a bed bug encounter at the Airlane Hotel in Thunder Bay. At the NAN symposium, I ate bannock and met and connected with Indigenous people for the first time. When I checked into my cabin at Quetico College, I noticed a posting on the main entrance door from the local public health unit informing guests that the tap water was not safe for drinking or consumption and had been in effect from 2014. As such, I refused to use the tap water even to brush my teeth and rinse out my toothbrush. Instead, I filled up my water bottle with the drinking water provided in the main dining hall and used that when brushing my teeth. It was a minor inconvenience but nailed it home that not everyone has access to clean and safe drinking water in Ontario. Not only that, it took about 10 minutes before I had access to hot water! This made me think about the challenges that communities have when they do not have access to clean, safe drinking water or even hot water for that matter.
I listened to presentations by the Indigenous people as it related to foods and participated in discussions. The symposium was also an opportunity to meet one of my professor’s, Charles Levkoe, for the first time. The discussions and feedback I heard at this symposium applied the learning and teachings in his course that I took in Winter 2017, Canadian Food Systems: Critical Perspectives in Health and Sustainability. On the last day of the symposium, representatives from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada led a session on “Developing a Food Policy for Canada” where I listened to the comments and suggestions from the Indigenous on what the government should consider. Some of the feedback provided including concerns around having access to fresh meat, fruits and vegetables that have not been frozen and re-frozen numerous times; access to healthier food options in schools instead of just having pizza on a daily basis; the ability to grow local meat such as chicken and reducing expired foods on shelves, to name a few. I also liked a comment that price caps should be introduced on fruits, vegetables and meat so that grocers cannot hike up the prices on these items. One participant even raised the issue of having access to roads year-round and commented that before we get ahead of ourselves to consider the impact that building roads would have on the local wildlife such as caribou which is often a part of the Indigenous diet. I was the spokesperson for my table and when we provided the suggestions on how to address some of the issues raised, I suggested that a national food (in)security surveillance program could be developed in collaboration with the Public Health Agency of Canada. Lastly, I was very adamant that all communities need access to clean, safe drinking water and that this is 2017 and they need to get with it!
All in all, this sums up my first experience in Northern Ontario and it will not be my last visit to the area. As an MPH student, specializing in Indigenous and Northern Health, it helped to expand my appreciation for living in the urban region as well as providing the ability to be able to relate and have experienced first hand what living in a northern, remote community can be like. I highly recommend that anyone specializing in Indigenous and Northern Health, take the time to travel to northern and remote communities so that you can have a better understanding of what living in these communities is like and the challenges that residents may face on a daily basis. My practicum begins in Winter 2018 with the Northwestern Health Unit (NWHU). This is a unique opportunity both for the NWHU and myself where my practicum will be completed at my home office. I will spend one week on site in Dryden where I will have the opportunity of meeting staff and learning more about the region.
You can read my first blog here: “How dental surgery led to advocacy, media attention and an MPH degree at Lakehead University”.
Ministry of Health & Long-Term Care. (2015, May 1). Northern Health Travel Grants. Retrieved from https://www.health.gov.on.ca/en/public/publications/ohip/northern.aspx