Camp Onakawana

Camp Onakawana is a charity spearheaded by Joseph Boyden to fund a four-season camp where Indigenous and non-Indigenous at-risk youth come together. With the help of elders, accredited counselors, and others, these youth learn to reconnect to their cultures, and absorb traditional knowledge.

Camp Onakawana is a charity spearheaded by a number of concerned and caring Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, including Joseph Boyden, Kim Samuel, Liesa Norman, John Thiessen, Jenn Sankey, and the camp’s heart, Pamela and William Tozer. The purpose of our charity is to fund a four-season camp where Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth (including at-risk youth) come together. With the help of elders, accredited counselors, and others, these youth learn to reconnect to their cultures and absorb traditional knowledge.

How you can help…Please join us through the Camp Onakawana Charity to help make a difference for our youth. All donations are warmly received. Chi Miigwetch.

The vision of the Camp Onakawana Charity is to empower the youth of James Bay and beyond. Attawapiskat has recently made the news again with its most recent and devastating wave of suicide attempts. But we understand that the wilderness and learning how to navigate it can serve as preventative medicine, where youth join together in a remote and stunning environment where there are no cell phones, no internet, and no television.

For 20 years, William and Pamela Tozer have been introducing youth and adults, aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike, to Mushkegowuk and all of its four season wonders.

The Tozers are members of the Moose Cree First Nation of Northern Ontario. Pamela is a mother, a counselor, a teacher. William's a Cree legend: hunter, trapper, and bushman extraordinaire, he was born on the land his people call Mushkegowuk in the tiny and remote community of Moose River Crossing. As a younger man he was one of the north's greatest bush pilots. William deeply understands the power and the medicine of this place.

William and Pam, along with their children, have dedicated themselves to introducing people to the beauty and the magic where the Onakawana River meets the Abitibi.

Camp Onakawana is located in the wilderness of the northern lowlands of Ontario, a paradise dotted by black spruce and poplar, tamarack and ash, the earth woven with rivers and pocked by muskeg. It’s true bush, about 220 kilometers north of Cochrane, Ontario, and about 90 kilometers south of Moosonee and its northern reserve cousin, Moose Factory.

How Canadians can help…What will allow places like Attawapiskat to get better? The equal ability to receive a proper education in your own community in all its forms. Curricula that teach children about their culture and their language and their land. When children learn the importance of where they come from, and who they are, and that others in the world care for them, they begin to internalize that vital ingredient of self-esteem: a sense of pride in self and in community.

In recent years, communities on the west coast of James Bay, and others very similar to them right across Canada’s north, have been devastated by trauma, including waves of young people taking their own lives. There are the theories: brutal socio-economic conditions and the post-traumatic stress of a culture’s destruction. Ultimately, though, no one is quite sure why the rate is often 100 times higher than the Canadian average.

There is no single solution for what has become one of the most pressing tragedies Canada faces. All we know is that something desperately needs to be done. So we’re doing something.

The Camp Onakawana Charity believes that education outside the classroom is just as important. Onakawana teaches youth to connect with the land again, whether that is how to build a fire or a winter shelter, how to make a hand drum and sing a song in your own language, how to catch a fish and paddle a canoe or sew moccasins or simply play volleyball together and laugh with one another. William and Pamela Tozer see the difference the camp can and does make. We see how youth come hesitantly but almost always can’t wait to return. We see how they go home to their communities with a growing awareness of who they are and where they come from. William and Pamela raised their four children with a deep knowledge of their land, and their children are all such solid and grounded people.

Ultimately, the education here goes beyond the literal knowledge taught in building a fire or shelter; it also teaches the basics of emotional intelligence. To not just getting along in the wilderness but thriving in it means learning self-worth as well as teamwork.

In just a week, the self-esteem gained from experiencing this type of environment is astounding. It allows these youth to see their own worth, accomplish something concrete, and create friendships. These youth are introduced to self-sufficiency, which leads to self-worth.

Camp Onakawana also incorporates “follow-up” programs once youth return home, keeping in touch with them through their schools, parents, and social organizations. We wish to continue monitoring the success rates of the youth who come through, but more importantly, we wish to remain in touch with those who have come to us with the understanding that they are always welcome back. We’ve already found that once youth attend, the vast majority wish to return.

Of course education costs money. It is also the greatest single investment we can make in this country, especially in regards to our nation’s fastest-growing population, our indigenous children. Let’s first agree to begin with actually investing just as much in our First Nations, Inuit and Metis youth as we do in every other group of youth across this country. It is simple logic.

Attawapiskat is a lightning rod for the debate in regards to the plight of Canada and its original peoples. Attawapiskat is a microcosm of intergenerational trauma. And Attawapiskat, the home of those people we love, is the spear’s tip in the battle over how we will move forward as a nation.

The Camp Onakawana Charity is working hard to change despair into self-reliance, to change that frightening feeling of being lost into always knowing how to find home, to change the belief that there isn’t much of a future into seeing that the world is your oyster, or should we say, your netted sturgeon, your beaded moccasin, your moose tenderloin, your sweat lodge, your eagle feather, your round dance in the wilderness, surrounded by your friends.

Camp Onakawana Charity Goals
The heart of the camp is to re-connect not just Indigenous youth but non-Indigenous youth to their birthright…the land.
Reintroducing youth to the land is what we believe to be the most powerful way to help them find their footing at home - giving them the skills and self-reliance to help them navigate their world.
If you pay attention to it, the land will not just teach you but take care of you. It will heal you.

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