There was a moment on a recent Jewish Service Network trip to North Bay, Ont., that 15-year-old Harrison Berman felt, for the first time, embarrassed to be Canadian.
Berman was one of nine high school-aged participants from Toronto to spend the weekend of May 6 doing a cultural and learning exchange with staff and youth affiliated with the North Bay Indian Friendship Centre, visiting the Nipissing First Nation reserve outside the city and meeting members of North Bay’s small Jewish community.
The trip was run in partnership by Beth Tzedec Congregation, Canadian Young Judea and Ve’ahavta under the auspices of Beth Tzedec’s teen-targeted Jewish Service Network, and supported by the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s WOW! program.
Berman recounted the day his group was listening to a man who lives on the reserve address some of the challenges his community faces.
He said that Daniel Silverman, one of the trip’s staff members and the director of education and family programming at Beth Tzedec, asked the man if he considers himself Canadian.
“[He] responded by saying no. He said he… feels like he’s part of a group who, although they live in Canada, feel they have no affiliation with it and can’t be part of it even if they’d like to… [We heard] how harsh their lives are and how little is being done to help them by the government,” said Berman, who’s in Grade 10 at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto and whose family belongs to Beth Tzedec.
The trip changed his perspective on what it means to be a First Nations person in Canada, Berman said, as he hadn’t previously understood the extent of the difficult conditions on reserves, as well as the racism many First Nations people often encounter and the lack of formal education in their communities.
The trip was open to all Jewish Toronto teenagers, and participants included students from public schools and non-Jewish private schools, Silverman said.
The North Bay weekend was the third trip of its kind. Last year’s cohort went to Detroit to learn about educational issues and urban decay.
“The goal of the trip this year was to expose the teens to an important conversation in Canadian society: how we have treated our First Nations people, how they continue to be treated and the challenges they face. It was also to develop empathy and awareness and to elucidate some of the connections between Jewish and First Nations experiences,” Silverman said.
The group arrived on Thursday night and stayed at a hotel in town. On Friday, they visited the reserve, accompanied by a guide who’d grown up there.
“It’s the second-wealthiest reserve in Ontario, so it was a bit hard to convey to the participants that most reserves are not as well maintained and don’t have the same facilities… that this is as good as it gets,” Silverman said.
They spent the rest of the day at the North Bay Indian Friendship Centre, where they met with First Nations youth and learned about their cultural practices, explaining, in turn, about Jewish history and rituals.
Friday night they held services and had Shabbat dinner at the local Sons of Jacob Synagogue with 13 people from North Bay’s Jewish community, which, all told, comprises about 10 families.
On Shabbat morning, they talked to several leaders in the community about the challenges and benefits of living in a place with a small Jewish presence.
On Sunday, the group helped clean up the lakefront area and met a Grade 12 student who lives in town but was born on the reserve.
He read a poem about feeling caught between the traditional world he comes from and his current city life.
“It was a great mirror for our kids, to be able to think about their own dual identities as Canadians and Jews,” Silverman said.
As the weekend wound down, the students began talking about ways they might eventually translate their learning into action.
Sixteen-year-old Jonah Opler, another participant, is also in Grade 10 at TanenbaumCHAT and a member of Beth Tzedec. He said he knew little about First Nations issues prior to the trip, but now has a better understanding of both the rich culture and the struggle endured by Aboriginal people in Canada.
“My biggest takeaway…is that even in Canada… there are people who live in awful, even Third-World conditions and are denied basic rights… They face heavy racism and unfair treatment and it goes unnoticed,” Opler said.