Knights of the Boardroom Table

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Jul 15, 2016 11:48 AM
Bob White (right) volunteers his time, expertise and connections to help the people of Pikangikum.

Bob White remembers peering out the window of a small plane for his first look at Pikangikum, an Ojibwe First Nations community with a population around 3,000, located in northwestern Ontario near the Manitoba border. “It’s beautiful. It’s remote. Even when you’re flying in, you’re looking down and you see it’s all lakes and the bush…What a beautiful place to live,” he says. On the ground, though, the picture changed.

“There was a sadness to see the condition of some of the properties in such a beautiful setting. That was the difficulty of looking at a setting that was gorgeous. You think of people who have their cottages on beautiful lakes,” he recalls. “That was my first impression: the beauty of such a wonderful setting and then the evidence of poverty.”

Bob, whose grandparents are from Port au Port, Newfoundland, first heard about the struggles of this remote community in 2011, and immediately felt compelled to help. An engineer by profession, Bob has worked as a consultant on corporate social responsibility projects and on sustainable development around the world for more than 30 years. He is also a member of the Kiptu First Nation. So when he first learned about the conditions of Pikangikum in 2011, when youth suicide rates were making headlines, he was inspired to use his expertise and connections with religious groups, companies and NGOs to form the Pikangikum Working Group. From his Toronto, ON office, he summoned like-minded professionals and volunteers on a mission to improve the quality of life in that community by working with the people. 

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Bob meets with some of Pikangikum's young people.

Bob and a couple of volunteers began by first meeting with Pikangikum’s chief and council members to ask them what they needed. Armed with on-the-ground information, the group began checking off their to-do list. So far the group has replaced 3,600 incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs in homes, to reduce electricity costs. For the kids, they purchased 150 laptops for the school and brought in a 500 KW generator to light up an ice rink. One of the things the group was quickly able to get off the ground was an annual clothing, bedding and diaper drive. Since that first year, Bob estimates they’ve sent 5,000-10,000 pounds of clothing and bedding over the ice road just in time for Christmas.

Some things are relatively easy fixes, while other issues require more time, engineering and money. Access to clean water is something the group has also been tackling. Back in 2011, only 50 of 450 homes had running water. “It’s got to have a significant impact on how they feel about themselves. So I think having access to water is a huge issue,” Bob says.

After doing some research, they found the most cost-effective way to get running water was by installing a 1,200-gallon water tank and waste tanks in each home. It’s a work in progress, as only a few homes have the system installed so far, but the results are encouraging. “We see the impact. In fact the first house that we did, I was there when they turned the water on. And I must say, if you can ever give yourself the gift of being there when somebody gets something like water in their home, do that,” says Bob.

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Bob was thrilled to be present when a family turned on the taps for the first time and got running water.

The running water project opened the door to helping alleviate another major issue in Pikangikum: unemployment. So when it came to hiring people to install the water system, they made a point of training and hiring locals. Six people from the community were trained as plumbers, carpenters and electricians. Now, Bob says, 10 more homes are about to have the water system installed and six new people will be trained. “So I think employment is a huge issue in terms of giving them income… But also confidence and recognition.”

Pikangikum’s location is a significant hurdle when it comes to economic independence. “It’s not easy to get to. You have to fly-in in the summertime. There’s an ice road in the winter,” Bob explains. A direct result of that is the exorbitant cost of goods, especially fresh produce. The same vegetable bought in Toronto can cost three times as much in Pikangikum, Bob says. So his group and the community have created the Youth and Women’s Food Cooperative, which will focus on growing food locally.

Canada can do better
Bob has worked all over the world and has seen people living in terrible conditions, but he never thought he’d see it in Canada. “For the last 30 years I’ve been consulting from India, China, all of Latin America, Indonesia Islands. I’ve worked in third world countries… And this is third world, no question about it,” Bob says. 

He thinks the poor conditions of this town and other Aboriginal communities are a result of the residential school system. “The impact of taking children away from their parents and forcing them to live away from their parents and to be told that you are bad because you are Indian… I think that has got to be devastating.” That heartache and rejection has had lasting impacts, as evidenced in the report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

But Bob is hopeful for Pikangikum and its future. “There is a peacefulness in their nature,” he says, “and you want to connect with them.” While the conditions may still be rough, they’re improving through the efforts shared by the community and Pikangikum Working Group volunteers. By Elizabeth Whitten

Would you like to join the ongoing efforts to help Pikangikum? To support the installation of water services in homes, click here (select "Pikangikum" and include the following message: "For water in Pikangikum homes). To contribute to the Youth and Women Food Cooperative, click here (select "Food" and include the following message: "For Pikangikum's Youth and Women's Food Cooperative").