Bridging the knowledge gap

Candace Neveau wants us to know that there is no such thing as a stupid question.

She’s the owner of Thunderbird Rock, a walking-tour company in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and she leads groups through her hometown with the intent to enlighten, engage, and educate on the experiences of First Nation people in the region.

Even though the Aboriginal population is over 10 percent of Sault Ste. Marie’s total, there remains a huge knowledge gap — so Candace launched her walking tours a year ago to give tourists, students and locals a chance to pose the questions that are often hard to ask. “We speak from our heart, from spirit,” she says. “Sometimes it might be scary but it’s important to ask rather than be unaware.”

The town of almost 75,000 looks over the St. Marys River — a vital waterway between the Great Lakes — to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, its twin U.S. city just across the water. Colloquially called the ‘Soo’ (in the Ojibwe language the area is called Baawiting, meaning, “of the rapids”), the First Nation people indigenous to this region of southern Ontario spent generations fending off missionaries, traders, and soldiers before a Canadian-American treaty drew its own borderlines following the War of 1812.

But many moons before that, the Ojibwe, of the Anishinaabe tribe, told their tale of how the North American continent — which they named Turtle Island — was born. “My ancestors have been in Sault Ste. Marie since the beginning of time,” says Candace. “It is amazing where we are at in time, because the settlers came to Turtle Island and we are all here for a reason. And that’s to figure something out together.”

Candace’s goal with Thunderbird Rock is to create ‘a walk between two worlds.’ The route runs along the town’s waterfront that symbolically connects traditional First Nation culture with a native perspective on life in present-day Sault Ste. Marie. “It’s all metaphor,” she says. “Ojibwe is such a descriptive language with a lot of metaphor. When I start my tour, I say, ‘I am just like a tree. My roots dig so deep in the ground you can’t even see them. This is my home, our grounds.’”

“ We are all here for a reason. To figure something out together.”

The issues that First Nation people face today are mired in a centuries-long chronicle of discrimination and struggle. “We had a residential school in Sault Ste. Marie,” Candace explains, “and a lot of people go through genocidal trauma. It’s been quite the journey of racism and mistreatments. There’s addiction. An identity crisis. A lot of First Nation people are unaware of their actual roots because of the assimilation process."

In 2008, the Government of Canada issued a statement of apology to former students of Indian residential schools. It was an acknowledgement of the horrors inflicted upon Aboriginal communities in the name of western education; children were forcibly removed from their homes and shipped off to institutional schools where all native practices were forbidden.

In 2014, Thunderbird Rock received a grant from Ontario’s Summer Company program, an initiative to spur student businesses and entrepreneurial projects in the province. Candace’s dedication to her community’s issues continues through her work at Youth Social Infrastructure Collaborative (YSI), where she travels around Canada facilitating conversations about how First Nations history and spirituality can fit into a new model of social entrepreneurship. “I come from a line of entrepreneurs,” she says. “My grandparents own a commercial fishing business. And I am aware of elders in the community who are willing to help.”

As she jumps into a second summer of tours along Sault Ste. Marie’s picturesque waterfront, where the whitefish still run, Candace is looking for marketing opportunities and regional connections to help grow her endeavour. Yet her focus remains on making sure tour-takers continue to ask those hard questions. “I don’t care about making money,” she says. “I care about informing people, enlightening them, making people feel accepted. Making people realize we are all human and we all have a place here on Earth.”