When the topic turns to Indigenous resurgence, there is often talk about the need for our people to return home. It is generally implied that “home” is the reserve, Settlement, or rural area and necessarily excludes urban centers. These discussions mean well, but are not always very nuanced; ignoring that urban centres have been home for generations of Indigenous people, as well as the fact that there are many reasons people cannot return home.
After an acrimonious divorce and custody battle, I moved myself and my two young daughters away from our home territory of Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta in 2009. We have been living in Montreal since. Many aspects of our life here have been a vast improvement to the situation we left behind, but we have also been living without support of family and community, and without access to teachings on our land. Nonetheless, though I often question the decision to move, I never really regret it. We have been safer and healthier here than would have been possible otherwise.
It was the right decision to make, but it was far from an easy one. All of the initial plans I had for my family involved staying in my home territory. I had to very quickly adjust to the idea that I might not be able to go home and that our lives would have to be rebuilt far away. I felt a huge sense of displacement, as though moving left us exiled in a place that was surprisingly unfamiliar, given that we were still in Canada.
While I do not believe time heals all wounds, it does soften the edges somewhat. We are relatively lucky, in that the interpersonal issues that gave our move urgency have now mostly resolved themselves. Others are not so fortunate, and for reasons of safety, they simply cannot return once they have left. In July of this year, we are moving home. Despite the challenges to come, I feel it's critical that my children be rooted in their home territory. For me, this is an issue of health. I do not feel healthy so far removed from our land, our medicines, and our sacred lake.
Though we have now made the decision to go home, returning is no easy task.
I am an off-Settlement Métis, so there is no collective land base for me to return to. We are incredibly lucky because my parents have a quarter section of land in our home territory, an hour and a half west of Edmonton, and they are willing to let us live there. Jobs are few and far between in Alberta, especially right now. Moving home means choosing to live in poverty and in crowded conditions unless we manage to build a house from scratch, on literally no budget.
Moving home also means once again being surrounded by family and friends, and having constant access to the land. Moving home means my children will finally have the opportunity to know their territory, and have access to their culture beyond what I have been able to impart to them on my own.
This said, the lakes central to Métis, Cree and Nakota people in my home territory are so polluted that you cannot eat the fish from those waters. Cyanobacteria blooms have become the norm, and sometimes make it unsafe to even stand near the lakes, much less immerse yourself in them. The animals are sick, and not good for eating. Half a mile from my parents’ land are two huge gravel pits that opened a few years ago. They run 24/7, and there are man-camps at each site. I worry about these camps and the environmental impact of the gravel pits. Being from that area, I feel a strong responsibility to do something about the environmental situation before it becomes even worse. If the lands and waters in our territories become so poisoned that they cannot support life, then we cannot fulfill our reciprocal obligations. There is no doubt in my mind that environmental violence directly threatens our existence as Indigenous peoples.
My family is making this move. But I think as Indigenous people, we need to have more nuanced conversations about why so many of us cannot return home, or why returning home is not always the right decision for our families.
Chelsea Vowel is Métis from Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta. She has a BEd and a LLB. She is mother to three girls, step-mother to two more. She is an educator who is passionate about the Cree language and Indigenous futurisms. Blog / Website / Twitter