The community of Shamattawa is nestled along the banks of God’s River some 745 kilometers northeast of Winnipeg, Manitoba. The ride was much shorter out of Gillam, the small hydro town where my wildland fire fighting crew was being stationed at the time of the fire call. We had heard terrible rumours about “Sham-town” and had hoped to never work near there.

There’s no road access to Shamattawa during the summer, so we went in by helicopter. It’s easy to be lulled to sleep by the repetitive chopping of the blades, so I distracted myself by watching small herds of woodland caribou weave spiderweb trails through the muskeg. Our pilot pointed out the wreckage of an airplane half hidden in scraggly spruce and flew over trucks scattered along the remnants of the winter road. I couldn’t help but feel like we were flying off the edge of the map. I began to wonder about the people who lived in such a remote place, how the human spirit could survive such inescapable isolation. Eventually I was dragged from my reverie by a column of smoke on the horizon.

The chopper circled the community as a water bomber made its runs. From up high the stories about the place seemed exaggerated. Several large, professional looking buildings stood among the many houses and tidy yards. We descended just outside of the community, being dropped into waist-deep mud that sucked at our legs and refused to let go. We dragged our gear through fetid bog, searching for firmer ground.

Tamarack trees materialized through the heavy smoke while the laughter of children danced around us; I never caught a glimpse of those tittering ghosts. Sirens wailed, punctuated by the revving of ATVs and random screams, then just as suddenly, silence. It was completely at odds with the trees around us. I became convinced that I had crossed a threshold somewhere during the dream-like flight. I set about my work to busy myself, determined to be gone quickly from this alien place.

By the time dusk fell, the smoky haze of our fire had faded, though another dark column loomed over the trees in the direction of the community. The local RCMP had arranged to pick us up that evening. They arrived late. We learned that the child that had started our forest fire had also lit up an abandoned house. She had turned herself in only to threaten the officers with more fires if they didn’t find her a way off the reserve. There was nothing the officers could do either way; she was too young to face any charges and there was nowhere to bring her. They told us more stories, jaded and sarcastic. There was no law to maintain out here, only damage to be mitigated. We loaded our weary spirits into the bed of their truck.

We drove down dirt roads choked with dust, passing houses and vehicles that appeared long abandoned. One of my crew mates muttered something about a third world country. With the column of black smoke ahead reflecting the angry, orange glow of flames, I imagined a war zone. We passed many people out and about, all of us heading towards the fire. There was nothing to be done for the house once we got there. The local fire department hosed down the nearby homes to keep them from catching fire, though the plastic siding had begun to melt. Satisfied that the situation wouldn’t escalate further, the RCMP decided to bring us to their compound for the night. As we drove away, my crew noticed three young children sitting on a front porch watching the other house burn. I waved.

“Fuck the police!” They yelled back, flipping us the bird. My crew laughed, incredulous.

“Where the hell are we?” My crew-mate asked of no one. I numbly agreed with the sentiment. This place was completely foreign to me. I thought my years of working with Indigenous people in the corrections system prior to the fire program had desensitized me to the terrible challenges they faced. Being immersed in the reality once more revealed my naiveté. We drove past yet another sad home, two shirtless children standing in a door-less frame of the second story with no porch or deck below them. I was struck by the resilience needed to survive such a harsh Canadian winter in this forlorn place. We came to an intersection and the reservation police drove by. Their truck was missing the front bumper, its windshield and windows smashed. Standing on the back seat, a little girl in a red dress stared at us through the black bars of a protective cage.

I thought this some exquisitely cruel joke beyond my comprehension. This wasn’t the Canada I loved and called home. This wasn’t the Canada that I believed to be one of the greatest countries in the world. This was a horrible truth swept under a faraway rug and a reality for many indigenous people. I was desperately interested to be a fly on the wall of any of the broken homes we passed but terrified as well of what I would witness. Here the scars of colonialism were raw and infected. The great beacon of hope I called Canada was dimmed in my eyes.

We rode up to the RCMP compound walled in sheet metal and ringed with barbed wire fence. A garage door groaned open for us and we rolled into the sally port. The door closed behind us and then a second garage door opened to let us into the compound. We hopped out of the bed of the truck and a grizzled RCMP officer stepped out of the barracks in his flip flops to greet us. The lights of the nearby trailers flickered as a back-up generator coughed into life. The officer grinned at us.

“Welcome to Shamatawa.”