If your washing machine breaks down and you’re four and a half hours away on a gravel road from the nearest town, what do you do?
What if you just want to grab a coffee and chat for a few minutes, except that you can’t, because there is no store, coffee shop or mall of any kind, literally nowhere to go, in the isolated First Nations reserves in Western Canada.
Thought about getting a driver’s licence?
How do you do that if you’re so far into the wilderness, it takes a day to get a motor vehicle office?
Maple Ridge resident Denise Trottier learned that firsthand this fall after visiting three northern reserves, hours away on dirt roads in sub-arctic Canada.
From an outsider’s perspective, Trottier said that poverty would be the first thing people would notice. “When you travel into these communities, it is typical to see small houses, with boarded windows that cannot be fixed due to lack of funds, gravel roads, no sidewalks, no street lights.”
She said most communities have one store but there’s generally no other businesses.
Yet, “I think we’ve never met more amazing people,” Trottier said Friday. She added that she can’t imagine how challenging it is to live where the nearest town is four and a half hours away on a gravel road.
“And yet, they do.
“I feel like everyone needs to understand what this is like in our own country,” she said.
“If everyone knew, I know that they would want to help. This is right here. It’s in our back yards.”
She’s part of The Ballantyne Project, founded by Dwight Ballantyne, who comes from Montreal Lake Cree Nation, more than four hours north of Saskatoon, Sask., on a gravel road.
After visiting a total of eight reserves by this spring, the project will have selected 15 students to take part in a month-long entrepreneurship program at the Mission Friendship Centre this June in Mission.
Students will be flown in and provided accommodation to take a month-long crash course in small business, based on a course developed by the Martin Family Initiative, started by former prime minister Paul Martin.
At the end of the course, graduates will have a business plan to take back to their reserves to start a business and improve life for them and the community.
Trottier said the intent is for residents to learn business skills then bring back their ideas to the reserve. Most people don’t want to leave, she added.
“Basically, were trying to start some sort of economic development and let them be self sufficient, all at the same time,” Trottier said.
One of the strategies for starting, is the “business in a box” concept where empty shipping containers can be trucked into a reserve and then converted into a small business premises.
So far, they’ve been to George Gordon First Nation, in northern Saskatchewan, Tootinaowaziibeeng Treaty Reserve, in Manitoba, and Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation (Southend) reserve in northern Saskatchewan. Next week, they’re going to Leq’a mel First Nation, near Deroche.
An RBC Foundation grant helps pay for the trips.
Ballantyne said he wants to give back to the types of places where he came from.
“I want to give back to northern communities … because I got an opportunity so I know what it’s like being on a reserve,” Ballantyne said.
“Some people are comfortable on a reserve, but some people want to leave, so it’s kind of the reason why I do this is to give back and give an opportunity in any way that I can.”
He said it’s a big change to leave a reserve in northern Manitoba to spend a month in Mission.
“They’re only here for a month which won’t be too long but it will also be a test for them. The bright side is that they actually get to go back home,” Ballantyne said.
Ballentyne left his own reserve of Montreal Lake Cree Nation, an hour north of Prince Albert to join the Bird’s Nest program in 2016 which helped bring First Nations kids to Maple Ridge to upgrade their education.