Days of Despair

by Chelsea Vowel

This blog post is going to be a bit of a downer, but I think it’s important not to gloss over the kinds of impediments that exist to being able to move back to one’s home territory. Ninety-eight percent of the time, I am supper chipper and positive and pumped about moving home! Today I’m in my two percents. Deep, deep, way down in them.

First, I need to acknowledge where I am extremely blessed. My parents own 160 acres (a quarter section) out Lac Ste. Anne way, close to Isle Lake. My dad’s mom was the most financially secure person on either side of the family, and so I’m pretty certain she helped them out when they were a young couple and I was but a wee little thing. Land was also a lot cheaper in the 70s. The irony of my Métis mom having to buy land in her own territory through a system of land ownership that is itself inherently colonial and has displaced Indigenous peoples, has never been lost on us.

So, there is land for me to go back to. That’s huge. That’s something I can’t gloss over. The Métis of Lac Ste. Anne don’t have a land base, we aren’t one of the northern Métis Settlements. So if I want to live in my traditional territory, I have to either move into one of the hamlets or villages within it, or I need to have a piece of land, and negotiate all that means when land ownership is so fraught.

My parents have been working on building themselves a house for oh, the last twenty-five years. I grew up very, very poor, and my parents just don’t have the financial security to take out loans to build. So they’ve been in the midst of a massive DIY project for a quarter of a century. Their house is still incomplete. There are no floor coverings, it's just plywood (and the splinters that come with!), no insulation between floors (well hello pin, I hear you dropping!) and a single shower for what will soon be seven people. They have finally made the switch from wood/coal stove heating though, which is a big change. I've developed allergies over the years to the constant wood and coal dust I grew up with so having "regular heating" is a wonderful bonus.

I never lived in that house; the project began after I had already moved out to attend University in Edmonton. At 38 years old, I am going to be moving into my parent’s basement with my husband, my three daughters, and my Métis in Space cohost, Molly Swain.

All of whom are great people, don’t get me wrong! Also, the arrangement is supposed to be temporary, but I can’t help but feel like a bit of a failure. I think of myself as my family’s provider, and the best I can do for them right now is a basement that isn’t even ready for us. We still have to clean it out, and fix it up enough to live in. There are other renos that need doing so we can fit there.

Despite my current dismal outlook, I have to nonetheless admit that this is still a blessing. I’ve got land to go back to because of my parents, and I’ve got a place for my family to live. That’s two massive, unbelievably important hurdles dealt with. Without these things, it would be impossible to go back to my home territory, period.

What I do not have yet, is a job. The job market back home is… well tiny and nearly impossible to get into unfortunately. Some of my elementary school teachers are still teaching now, so it’s not the case that spots often open up for someone with my skill set. Most people who live back home end up commuting into the city for work, or have to work up north in various resource extraction industries. My dad for example works two weeks away each month. Them’s the options.

Right now, the lack of a job is scaring the crap out of me. We have financial obligations that aren’t going to go away just because we’re moving to a place with few jobs, and my parents certainly cannot afford to support THEIR ADULT DAUGHTER AND HER FAMILY. This is all I can think about right now. That and worrying about whether an extended family living situation is going to get my kids flagged by Child Welfare, and all that state intrusion means.

Moving from Montreal back to my home, means that both my husband and I are leaving pretty decent jobs. Not jobs with any benefits mind you, we don’t have retirement savings or even adequate medical benefits, and we live cheque to cheque, but that’s what passes for a decent job these days, and we’re leaving that behind. My husband would have to live in the city to continue working. Instead, we’ve decided that he should be the one to stay home with the baby for now.

I applied for a graduate program at the University of Alberta as a sort of “exit strategy”, to have something lined up for me. I had been hoping that I’d be able to get some sort of funding to afford school, and maybe to live on. Looks like that isn’t going to happen, so I’m probably going to have to withdraw. Going to school in Edmonton would also mean having to drive in and out of the city every day of classes, which is kind of a big deal. Especially in the winter.

But these are the kinds of plans I’ve been trying to make, because I have to. In a less depressing blog post I’ll explain some day soon why it is so important for me to get home, to get my kids home…for now, just accept that this is true. In order to do this however, I have to accept certain conditions. Job insecurity is huge one, and I honestly don’t now how I’m going to overcome that. Housing insecurity is the other big deal.

Living in my parent’s basement has to be temporary. There simply isn’t enough room for us there for the long term. However, we don’t have savings. We have diddly squat in terms of money. Regardless, somehow my husband and I need to build a home for our family. This means we have to learn how to build a house by hand, and we need to do it in two seasons: the foundations this summer, and the rest of the house next summer.

This is something we’ve been talking about and planning for a long time, but as the time nears, I am definitely full of fear. I don’t know how we’re actually going to make this happen. Ours is not a generation that has been taught how to be self-sufficient in this way. People rarely build their own homes anymore. That is a skill, and an opportunity, that has been deliberately eradicated it seems. We will never be able to afford a house that costs $500,000 and yet that is the going rate everywhere these days. Renting is no longer an option for us; we’ve been priced out. So it’s this, or eventual homelessness.

It’s a lot of responsibility. I know this. I understand that this is why I feel such despair right now. I’m scared shitless. I am second guessing myself with every breath. But we just cannot keep living in Montreal. We can’t afford it! We’re barely making ends meet with two salaries! We lack support of family and community. We lack access to the land, the water, and to traditional medicines and foods. This is not life, this is living in limbo, waiting for something…death maybe. So this move is necessary, but that doesn’t make it any less frightening.

I’m the kind of person who likes to have a five year plan. I want to provide my kids with as much stability and certainty as possible. I don’t get to have that right now. Instead, I am taking an enormous leap of faith and the outcomes are very uncertain. Despite all of this, I still am in a better position to move home than many Indigenous people are. How messed up is that!?