WIIKWEMKOONG – If there’s a community effort underway in Wiikwemkoong, chances are good that Jamie-lee Oshkabewisens has had a part in it.
The young man’s contributions surface in many ways in the community, including a time when he gathered a few friends to clean up trash in Bayview. Chief and council heard about their project and donated gloves and garbage bags, with which they cleaned up more than two-dozen bags of garbage.
Some young kids in the neighbourhood saw them working and offered to join in and another neighbour, Gerard, bought them pizza to commemorate their efforts and celebrate getting even more people involved in taking care of their community.
For Mr. Oshkabewisens, giving back comes naturally through his mother, who passed in October and was always finding ways to improve her community.
She was a foster parent to a young girl, Lilianna, and Mr. Oshkabewisens, a 28-year-old, decided to leave his job at Wiikwemkoong Board of Education to prepare his home and take on full-time care responsibilities as her new foster father.
“I approached Kina (Gbezhgomi) to say I didn’t want her to go anywhere. She was like a sister to me, so I started caring for her. Since then, we’ve been doing the little things my mom taught me,” he said.
His mom and stepfather once got permission to use a man’s sugar camp in Kaboni to make syrup a couple of years ago and they surprised the man by revitalizing the space and bringing lights and a generator to the property as a way of saying thanks.
This past year, he found his mother’s old pails and spigots and got permission to tap a South Bay tree lot with Lilianna. The two collected about 100 gallons of sap and worked as a pair to transfer the buckets and haul the full loads back to their car—affectionately called ‘Lilianna’s Limo.’
“It was our first time doing it too. I was always told by my mom that when elders showed me things I’ve learned over the years, when you learn something new you’re supposed to share what you’ve learned with somebody else. That way, you’ll be better at it the next time,” he said.
Mr. Oshkabewisens needed some repairs to keep his car running so they could use it to travel for appointments, volunteering and necessary trips. He figured he could sell the syrup to cover some of those costs, but then he saw a post that Wikwemikong Nursing Home was looking for syrup donations for its residents.
He consulted with Lilianna about whether they should donate their bounty instead and they agreed it was the right thing to do. He has also given his syrup to elders who haven’t been able to harvest on their own anymore and to those who have helped him in the past.
The nursing home was an important benefactor personally because he grew up close by and spent many days visiting elders, playing the home’s piano and helping to decorate and provide meals during the holidays. He said he valued the way the home was a part of the community and how the community came into the home.
Mr. Oshkabewisens has also volunteered to get the powwow grounds ready for the cultural festival and helped out at the fall fair and other small events. He sells some of his artisanal cakes and baking through Jamie’s Kitchen in Wiikwemkoong.
“I don’t really go out of my way to tell people the things I do. I just offer my help wherever I can,” he said. “If I have more than I should need, I just want to share that surplus with others. Hopefully they would see that gratitude and whenever you’re struggling or need a helping hand, they will offer their help at a later date.”
Leaving his job at the school board was a tough decision but he said it was worth it for the sake of his foster daughter, now eight years old.
“I wanted to make sure my state of mind, my mental health was okay, and I’m fit to be the parent, the stepdad I think I could be,” he said. “Losing both our mom and our stepdad this past year has really been a toll on us, for me and Lilianna.”
Instead, he is trying to remember the teachings he got from his own mother and stepfather and pass that knowledge down to her, with the hopes that she can do the same with her children someday.
“It’s been a rough couple of months and we take it day-by-day, but whenever the opportunity arises to help out, we do,” he said.
Mr. Oshkabewisens is already dreaming of plans for the coming year and the teachings he will share with Lilianna. He plans to teach her how to fish and hopes they can fillet their first catch and give it to an elder or family member.