SIOUX LOOKOUT, ONT.—Dr. Mike Kirlew meets me at the Sioux Lookout Airport because it is -40 C and my rental car won’t start. During the winter months, cars need to be plugged into power outlets overnight or their batteries will freeze. Mike laughs as he tries to jam the key into the ignition of the Toyota-turned-ice-block, but the key won’t move. The steering wheel won’t budge. Everything is frozen.
The sun blazes in the cloudless blue sky, but it gives us no warmth as we scurry to his car and hop in. Mike takes off his thick, beautifully beaded moose-hide mitts and pushes back his beaver fur hat before he starts the car and turns up the seat warmers. He pops in some Bob Marley. The smooth sounds of reggae evoke images of a climate about 80 degrees warmer, a perfect antidote to the harsh realities of the Canadian winter. Dr. Michael Kirlew in Sioux Lookout, Ont. He says the health-care system was designed to care for non-Indigenous Canadians, and that’s why it is failing Indigenous people. Mike, who was born in Ottawa to Jamaican immigrant parents, is a physician who has devoted his entire life to living and working in Sioux Lookout. He arrived here by fluke — he had hoped to go to Moose Factory, along the James Bay coast, but he was told the medical residency program was full and instead he had to go to the Sioux. He, his wife, Yolaine, and their three children make this their home. For nearly 11 years, Mike has been grappling with the suicide crisis in northern Ontario, and he sees no end in sight. He is the one who, on a moment’s notice, drops everything to respond to a health crisis in Canada’s remote North. He cared for Jolynn Winter and Chantell Fox in Wapekeka when they were toddlers. He sees first-hand how a lack of the determinants of health — education, basic services, a safe environment, and employment — debilitates these communities.
“Let me take you on the five-dollar tour of town,” he says, then laughs: “OK, maybe it’s the $4.99 tour.”
When you grow up surrounded by suicide, it seems normal. How do you heal a ‘broken spirit’?
Sioux Lookout is a modest town of nearly 5,000 located halfway between Thunder Bay and Winnipeg, high up on the Canadian Shield. Carbon dating has uncovered evidence that Sioux Lookout has been home to various First Nations for the past 8,000 years.
Sioux Lookout gets its name from the top of a hillside near Pelican Lake. As the story goes, the Ojibwe who lived around Gichigami, or Lake Superior, were constantly under attack from the Sioux, who lived on the western plains. One day, the Ojibwe devised a plan. When their lookout spotted the Sioux on Frog Rapids, he sent a warning to those camped below. When the Siopelux landed, the Ojibwe ambushed them, and a great battle ensued. All but one Sioux boy were drowned or killed.”
Sioux Lookout today is a picturesque town full of American fishermen and adventurers in the summer, and forestry and health-care workers all year round. Throughout the day, float planes land on Pelican Lake and pickup trucks stream past the drive-through window at the Tim Hortons. But the best coffee and home-baked goods can be found at Roy Lane Coffee, on Sioux Lookout’s main drag, Front St., also known as First Ave. N., depending on which direction you’re travelling. The town’s quiet is broken only by the frequent sound of trains rumbling along the Canadian National Railway’s transcontinental main line. Lac Seul […]
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