I struggled to put on a brave face and hold back tears in front of passing strangers at Pearson as I hugged my family one last time. We wouldn’t see each other again for a whole year, and I was about to embark on a journey that would change the course of my life. It was 20 years ago today – July 31, 1996 – and I was 17 years old with my world about to blow wide open.
My luggage was checked, my documents were secure in my travel wallet, and prolonging the farewell would only result in awkward crying. There was nothing left to do or say, so I turned to walk towards the international gate, waving one last time and taking a mental snapshot of the quivering smiles on the faces of my loved ones.
Months earlier, I was selected by the Rotary Club of Parry Sound to take part in the Rotary International Youth Exchange Program and spend a year in northern Germany. It was a pretty big deal for an Anishinaabe kid from a small reserve on Georgian Bay. It wasn’t really planned; I literally stumbled upon the opportunity when I saw a poster for the program in the hall at Parry Sound High School, which piqued my interest. It was a crucial time in my life: the waning months of Grade 12 when high school students were supposed to formulate an educational and career path before the now-obsolete OAC year.
But instead of getting ready for my last year of high school, I was now about to board a plane to a European country, not to return until the following summer to prepare for OAC in the fall, and hopefully have a clearer vision of career ambition. I was both nervous and excited about the foreign path ahead of me, but I couldn’t have anticipated just how it would shape the person I was to become. The tears were long buried as I buckled into my seat on the plane.
The months in the lead-up to my exchange were full of Rotary orientations, visits with family and friends, and learning as much about modern-day Germany as possible. I had tapes and books to learn the language, but admittedly, I barely listened to or read any of those (although I did learn German fluently while there). But one conversation I had in those final months in Canada stands out as truly momentous and ominous.
I got a call sometime before I left with a sort of job offer. I don’t remember exactly when it was, because it has been 20 years, and details aren’t as sharp. Either way, it was from the Anishinabek News, the newspaper published by the Union of Ontario Indians (now the Anishinabek Nation) to serve its 40-plus communities across the province. The editor said they had heard about my upcoming trip, and wondered if I’d be interested in writing about my experiences as a ‘Nish teen in a European country for publication every month. And he said they’d pay me for each story.
The notion of being paid to write blew my mind. I had no idea that was possible. Journalism was never presented as a viable career option to me, mostly because I hadn’t been exposed to the few Indigenous journalists at the time who were out there blazing a trail in Canadian media. And the main reason I applied for the exchange program in the first place was that despite being an honours student in high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a living, or what or where I wanted to study for college or university.
That’s why, after attending the information session for the Rotary exchange program the day after seeing that poster in the hall, I thought it was a good option to keep those big decisions at bay, and take the opportunity to figure out my path during a year away from home in a far-off place. My parents were supportive, as were the rest of my family and the wider community around me, especially the people in my home of Wasauksing First Nation. I didn’t realize then that I would become an ambassador for Anishinaabe people especially, and not just the country of Canada. That role emerged in the writing I was about to do.
In early August, I began the German equivalent of high school in the town of Brake in the maritime lowlands of the northeast. My host sister Anne drove me to the front door of Gymnasium Brake, and I had never been so nervous in my life. Those nerves were exacerbated by the dozens of students gathered out front. They all stared as I got out of the car, and my gut teetered on fear.
But as I approached, I saw affability and enthusiasm in their eyes, and they welcomed me warmly. I learned later that they gathered there that morning because they heard there was an “Indianer” coming to their school. They wanted to see how I looked. My friend Tim later told me they were disappointed to see me arrive in jeans and a t-shirt with short hair. They were expecting a “real-life” Indian like the ones they read about in the Winnetou tales by Karl May. We laughed, and I wrote about that for one of my first assignments for the Anishinabek News.
It’s a story I tell often nowadays when I explain how I got into journalism and decided to make raising awareness of Indigenous experiences in Canada my life’s mission. Up until that point in my life, I had never encountered such a great degree of enthusiasm and general interest in my Anishinaabe background. Most people I met there valued my heritage and experiences, and wanted to know more. Back then, outside of my own non-Indigenous family, that just didn’t happen to me in Canada.
That made the cultural and social divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians even clearer to me. I was well aware of the racism and general ignorance that existed in my home country because I had lived it first-hand, growing up in the 1980s and 90s. It took going to Germany to really feel celebrated and appreciated outside of my own community, and that was a shocking eyeopener.
The more I thought about it, thousands of kilometres from home, the more I realized Canadians just weren’t learning the proper story of Indigenous peoples and the actual history of how Canada came to be. And it wasn’t the fault of everyday Canadians themselves. It was the education system itself that erased those truths and experiences. While I alone could never fix those problems, I could help raise awareness by writing about them.
There were more eyeopening experiences like that first day of school. There was the time I was at an anniversary party for my host parents when an elderly German man told me to be proud of who I was as an Anishinaabe person and to ensure that my culture stayed strong. He said because when he was my age, he was forced to salute a man named Hitler and fall in line with all his horrible beliefs. As such, he said he found it hard to feel proud of his German background later in life. I wrote about that interaction, too.
I began getting letters from people back home who read those stories. They thanked me for sharing my experiences, and for representing the Anishinaabeg a world away from our homelands. Feedback like that was heartwarming and motivating. It made me realize that this kind of storytelling could have a real impact. That’s when I decided I wanted to become a journalist.
The year in Germany wrapped up, full of many beautiful, compelling, and enlightening stories. I could write a whole book about how that exchange year unfolded and what it really means to me. But 20 years to the day that I left, I’ll just focus on how it helped define my career and my desire to share the important stories of Indigenous people and the issues that impact them.
I returned to Canada at age 18, had one last year of high school to go, and applied to journalism school. I got into Ryerson, graduated four years later, and have worked in different storytelling capacities since. It’s an honour and a privilege to do this for a living, and I don’t believe I would have found this life without that year in Germany.
I’ve looked back often. I’ve even gone back twice to visit, and I’m long overdue for a return. It will always be like another home to me. It’s where I found my path, which continues to take shape. And for that, I’ll always be grateful.
Danke schoen/chi-miigwech/thank you!
Thanks to the following who made that year possible: my parents and brothers, my friends and family in Wasauksing and Parry Sound and beyond, the Rotary Club of Parry Sound, the Rotary Club of Brake-Unterweser, the Heitzhausen family, the Kordes family, the Doeding family, the Koehlers, the Funks, staff and students of Gymnasium Brake, the lovely people of the Wesermarsch, Dave Dale and Maurice Switzer of the Anishinabek News, and all Rotary exchange students I met. You’ll all have a special place in my heart always.