The Beauty of Mistissini

I’ve been sharing a lot about the daily struggles of teaching, but I haven’t mentioned some of the more beautiful aspects of life in this small community. Here are a few things that have made me pause to thank God over the past five weeks.



The night:

I remember, as a kid, I would visit my grandfather who lived in the country and I’d be able to see the stars. They were so magical. Living in Toronto and Seoul for the majority of my life, I’ve never really experienced darkness. From street lights, to headlights, to Christmas lights, there was always something preventing me from fully appreciating the night sky. Well, for the first time in probably ten years, I was able to see the stars here in Mistissini, and they literally took my breath away. I had forgotten how incredible and majestic the sky was without all the lights to detract from its beauty. I had forgotten how peaceful and serene the darkness of night could be.

The quiet:

While walking home from school the other day, I realized that something was different. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until it hit me. It was completely quiet. The only thing I heard was the electric buzz of the street light. No chatter, no traffic, no noise. Just tranquility. At night, I sleep so well because of the peacefulness. I had grown accustomed to the constant buzz of city life, but here, that doesn’t exist. There’s something so calming about and the quietness and I realize that I appreciate it more than I thought I would.

The dogs:

If you follow me in Instagram or facebook, you will have seen the many pictures of dogs that I’ve been posting lately. It seems like most families own a dog in this community. But, unlike in the city, the dogs here are allowed to roam free during the days and evenings. They all have collars for identification purposes, but they prance around without a care in the world in -22 degree weather. Total freedom. And they are very friendly! The dogs are honestly one of my favourite things about living here! I owned a dog from the age of 6-20 and I am totally a dog person (even though I love my cats!) There is something so comforting and endearing about their presence. They’re always happy to see me and I really enjoy my new canine friendships.

The snow:

I spent five winters in Seoul and during the relatively mild winter months, it would snow maybe 3-4 times a year. When it did, the snow rarely stuck around for more than a few hours. The most you would ever see would be 2 inches of snow on the ground. People don’t even own shovels in Seoul because of the rarity of snow, instead using brooms to clear their driveways. Brooms! It’s a different world here in Mistissini. The snow is thigh deep in some areas and it snows almost every day. In fact, most families own a skidoo or a four wheeler for getting around as cars don’t fair as well in the snow. It took some getting used to, seeing a skidoo drive past me on my morning walk. Thankfully, the snow here is different than it is in Toronto, it’s dry, not wet. You know the kind of snow we all hate that turns into grey slush almost immediately? Not here! Here, the snow is fluffy and pretty and pure. It’s the stuff snow angel dreams are made of.

The air:

Of the many things I’m learning to love about life up north, the air is at the top of my list. It is SO clean. So fresh. So crisp. Living in Seoul, my lungs suffered a lot. The pollution, the smog, the yellow dust from China. One year, I had bronchitis for six weeks because of my mild asthma and the air quality. Here, it feels like the air is healing for my lungs. It truly is invigorating. I’m so used to being able to smell something in the air. Car exhaust, friend chicken, coffee, perfumes. Here, there’s nothing. While walking to work in the morning, I literally smelled the snow. It’s heavenly.

The pace:

Living in two major cities, it was always about the hustle. From one place the the next, and back again, it was a constant rush. Here in Mistissini, the pace of life is much slower. It’s leisurely. There’s no hurrying. People take their time and the overall vibe of this place is very peaceful. The beautiful landscape of Lake Mistassini definitely helps with the serene atmosphere, as do the snow capped evergreens as far as the eye can see. People care about each other and it’s evident in how they interact and support one another. Life here is a stark contrast to life in Toronto or Seoul, it’s slow and it’s authentic and it’s beautiful. I have a feeling that I am going to learn a lot from this place and these people, and I’m so glad you’re along for the journey.


Thanks so much for keeping up with my adventures here in the north! If you want to write me a letter my address is:

Natasha Spiers
368 Mistissini Blvd. Apartment B
Mistissini, Quebec, G0W 1C0

 

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One Month in Mistissini

It’s hard to believe that I’ve already been living in Mistissini for one month. The time has simultaneously flown by and dragged on as I’ve laboriously navigated the past four weeks of teaching in this remote community.

For those of you who have been praying for me, I am incredibly grateful and I sincerely thank you; I have felt your prayers. They have given me the patience, strength and wisdom to get back in the fight every time I’ve been emotionally and mentally knocked down, and honestly, that has happened nearly every single day.

The first week here was definitely the most challenging week of my five years of teaching. Thankfully, things have been slowly improving with each passing week, only marginally, but it’s progress and I’m very thankful for every small victory. Here are some updates for those who wish to join me for this ambitious adventure.


The class:

In my last update, I shared that my co-teacher, Dom and I were cracking down on discipline in the classroom and asked for your prayers. As we expected, this has been a minute by minute struggle since many of the students don’t experience discipline or face consequences of any kind in their daily lives.

With much painstaking consistency, they are slowly coming to realize that we mean business and that their disruption, defiance, and disrespect will not be tolerated in our classroom. Sadly, this has meant that we have already put one student in the alternate suspension program and we are currently working on doing the same for two to three others. Our goal is always inclusion, but when their behaviour is preventing other students from learning and preventing us from teaching, placing them in an alternate program for a period of time ends up being best option for all involved.

Aside from the eight to ten students who are consistently wreaking havoc in class, I have seen a improvement overall. Dom and I been able to establish a clear routine and consistent expectations and it seems to be helping a lot. We are also meeting with our students one on one to build rapport and get to know them better. There is much work yet to be done in order to foster a safe learning environment for these students, but the wheels are slowly turning and we are committed to seeing this through.

The hardships:

I have been experiencing a lot of stress due to the chaos that surrounds me every day. The behaviour of the students is absolutely appalling at best and violently abusive at worst. I have been struggling to prevent this stress from manifesting itself physically.

Here are a few things I’ve dealt with over the past three weeks.

  • One of my students  didn’t want to be in detention so she screamed at me, flipped her desk over, and left the class, slamming the door very loudly behind her.
  • I tried to break up a bullying incident between two 11 year olds at recess. One girl had the other pinned up against a brick and was yelling at her within an inch of her face. I had to think fast and tried to de-escalate the situation as best I could but the girl wasn’t responsive, blinded by her anger. Thankfully another teacher saw what was happening and came to help me. Sadly, even with the two of us intervening, the aggressor was able to violently punch the other girl in the face. I couldn’t help but feel responsible; I wasn’t able to save the girl from her assailant’s rage.
  • Several boys from my sixth grade class were involved in beating up another boy in fifth grade. The boy who was injured was lured behind the grocery store by a girl and was bullied and attacked by 7-10 other students. We are starting a school-wide anti-bullying campaign because things are getting increasingly violent at our school and students are getting hurt.

On top of these larger incidents, I am disrespected, degraded and defied every single day by the students at the school. Whether it is students talking back, making snide remarks in Cree, teaming up against me, pushing chairs and desks aggressively in frustration, or simply refusing to do what is being asked of them, each day is a struggle. It is no wonder that several teachers from this community have had to take mental health leave. As you can imagine, these incidents are very emotionally draining and I am completely exhausted at the end of the day.

The Highlights:

Thankfully, it’s not all bad! There were a few noteworthy silver linings from the last three weeks.

  • I got an unexpected hug from a girl who has been quite defiant since I first got here.
  • We had a long, positive talk with one of our boys about his choices and his future. He is facing a lot of peer pressure to be ‘cool’ and part of a local gang and we hope that every ounce of truth we speak into his life will help him avoid choosing the wrong path.
  • I had a productive conversation with a difficult student’s mother and it was so encouraging to ascertain that we are on the same page in wanting her daughter to succeed at this school.
  • I attended the Anglican church last Sunday (one of two English speaking churches here) and it was a lovely service.
  • I’m slowly but surely getting into a routine with my teaching  and moving beyond the most challenging part of what has proven to be a steep learning curve.

I’ve also been able to explore the community and the culture a little bit more. The local lodge is hosting a free dinner from Monday – Wednesday for the next few weeks. I was able to attend last Wednesday and it was such an enriching experience. It was my first time eating moose stew and it was delicious!

I was also able to do some craft sewing and even tried my hand at wood carving (it wasn’t for me as the carving tools were very sharp and difficult to use properly, my wrist was cramping!) Hearing one of the elders bless the food in Cree before we ate brought tears to my eyes. There is something so innately serene and profoundly beautiful about this culture; I am so honoured to be able to experience it first-hand living in this community.

Prayer requests: 

  1. Please pray for my health as I have been experiencing migraines and stomach issues from the stress that I have been facing on a daily basis.
  2. Please pray for Dominique and myself as we strive to find the right balance of love and firmness for our students. Pray also for unity as we get to know each other better and create a thriving teaching partnership.
  3. Please pray for my students that God would soften their hearts and allow them to see us as allies and confidants who love them.
  4. Please pray for the families in this community. There are many strongholds here including alcoholism, neglect, addictions, and a poverty mentality. Please pray that these strongholds would be broken in Jesus’ name and that this community would be transformed for His Glory!

Thank you so much, friends! ❤ Your prayers and support mean more to me than you know. If you want to write me a letter, here’s my mailing address:

Natasha Spiers
368 Mistissini Blvd., Apartment B,
Mistissini, Quebec, G0W 1C0

First Week of Teaching

I survived my first week teaching in the Cree Nation of Mistissini.

To sum it up: It felt like I was starring in a hidden camera documentary entitled: Sixth Grade Psychological Warfare.

Context:

Let me give you a few details so you’ll better understand the structure of my new role. I am team teaching with another sixth grade teacher who has been at the school since last January. Her name is Dominique and she’s a great.

There are four sixth grade English classes at the elementary school (there are also two sixth grade French classes as the students have a choice to pursue their education in English or in French). Two of the English classes are team taught by Elaine an Laura who have been at the school for over five years and the other two are taught by Dom and me.

Team teaching:

Team teaching means that both Dom and I are the teachers of two 15-student classes that were joined together to make one 30-student class. The students are taught some subjects as one large class (science, art and social studies) and they are separated into two classes for math and English according to their comprehension levels.

Team teaching is unconventional and it has its pros and cons but Dom had been wanting to give it a try for a while and I thought it was a great idea, so we are going to test it out until Christmas break to see if it works for us. I think we make an awesome team.

A challenging week:

Here are just a few of the things that took place during my first week of teaching, many of them occurring simultaneously:

  1. I was sworn at and mocked in the Cree language.
  2. The students defied 90% of the instructions I gave them.
  3. They constantly and loudly complained about what they were asked to do.
  4. Students threw things at each other during class.
  5. They pushed, shoved an hit each other in the classroom.
  6. They constantly argued with and antagonized one another.
  7. A student kicked the door in anger.
  8. Several of them threw objects against the wall in defiance and frustration.
  9. They refused to stop talking when I was giving directions.
  10. They walked out and slammed the door when they got upset.

As you can imagine, it has been a very challenging week, physically, mentally and emotionally draining. But at the same time, it’s been invigorating because this week has  given me confirmation of why I’m here.

My purpose:

I firmly believe that God called me here to show His consistency, acceptance and love to these students, many of whom have had childhoods wrought with abandonment, rejection, and sometimes abuse. There has been a lack of consistency, consequences and structure in their lives and their tough exteriors are carefully constructed facades meant to protect vulnerable, wounded and hurting 11 year-old hearts.

The students are accustomed to seeing teachers come and go on a regular basis. Many teachers can’t handle the stress of this environment and the dejection of a seemingly hopeless situation, and I can completely understand why. But because of this lack of consistency, the students have learned to not trust authority figures, leading to an outright lack of respect for their teachers.

Love and devotion:

I was talking to one of the women in the community who works as a doctor at the clinic here and she gave me a poignant analogy of the situation. She told me that the students don protective shells because it’s how they’ve learned to survive. They’ve been so hurt and disappointed that they’ve adopted these tough exteriors as defense mechanisms. These shells, equipped with sharp thorns, will pierce anybody who dares to get close enough.

She went on to share that genuine compassion and true devotion is not giving up on them even though it means that I’ll get pricked endlessly. It’s not retracting my affection even though loving them is painful; it is exhausting and overwhelming and thankless in many ways. Their constant anger, frustration, aggression and disrespect is difficult to endure. But, I do love them and I am devoted to them. Because God loves them and I have committed to loving these kids as He does.

Speaking truth:

I was able to have a meaningful conversation with one of my more defiant female students this week. With all sincerity, she asked me, “Am I always bad?” My heart broke. I responded emphatically, “No! You are not bad, you are good. You are smart, capable and good. But sometimes, you make bad choices.” I went on to talk to her about how all of our choices, good and bad, have consequences that affect us, others and our futures.

She listened intently and I could tell she was absorbing the truth that I was sharing: her behaviour is separate from her identity. Many of these kids have been taught either implicitly or explicitly that they are bad and cannot change. It will take a considerable amount of time and effort to help them unlearn the lies that have been spoken over them and replace those lies with God’s truths regarding their identity. They are not bad, they can change, there is hope.

This small victory made the entire arduous week worth it. It strengthened my commitment, bolstered my courage and ignited my conviction. I will withstand the insults to show them God’s consistency. I will endure the hostility to show them God’s acceptance. I will suffer the thorns to show them God’s love.

Jesus did.

Prayer requests:

  1. We have cracked down on discipline to bring structure, accountability and logical consequences to the classroom, please pray that we are able to uphold these rules and procedures fairly and consistently.
  2. Please pray that I would have the patience, compassion and firmness to love and teach the students well.
  3. Dom and I spend a lot of time together, planning, preparing and teaching the class. Please pray that we would continue to build a strong and effective partnership.
  4. Please pray that I would have an overflow of God’s strength because there is no way that I can do this in my own strength.

Thank you so much, friends. I love and appreciate you! If you want to write to me, I’d love to get your letters! My address is:

368 Mistissini Blvd, Apt. B, Mistissini, QB, G0W 1C0.

xo Tasha

 

Moving to Mistissini

If you had told me one year ago that I would be moving to a small reservation in the remote terrain of northern Quebec to teach 6th grade in the Cree community, I definitely would have given you an ‘you’re joking right?’ look and walked away swiftly. But, as is often the case, God’s plans are very different from my own and well, here I am, all moved in and ready to meet my new class of Cree pre-teens tomorrow morning.

I want to keep my blog updated to give you a first timer’s perspective of life up north. Here are a few things that you might find interesting about the adventure so far.

The journey here:

In order to get to Mistissini (which means Big Rock in Cree… possibly a foreshadowing of my future engagement ring? Hehe.) I had to travel first from Toronto to Montreal and then from Montreal to Chibougamau (the city with the nearest airport.) From there, I had to get a taxi for the hour and twenty minute drive to my new community.

The community: 

Mistissini is technically a reservation and a dry community, which means they don’t sell alcohol anywhere on the reserve. The community size is around 5000, a huge change from the hustle and bustle of life in Toronto and Seoul. The community includes a grocery store, a community center, a post office, three schools (pre-school, elementary and high), four small churches, a health clinic, a hair salon and two gas stations. They even have a Timmy’s and a Subway!

The apartment:

I have my own one bedroom apartment that is small but starting to feel cozier every day. I am in a fourplex so I have three neighbours who all seem quite friendly. The apartment is only a ten minute walk from the school, which is great since I don’t have a car. We even have a fenced off backyard with a shed and a deck for enjoying those warm-ish summer nights.

The landscape:

Mistissini is located on Quebec’s biggest lake named Mistassini, which makes for many a beautiful and tranquil view. People here live in small houses and trailers, and the ‘town’ isn’t very spread out so you can walk from one end to the next without much difficulty. There are many trees and the air is beautifully fresh. The average winter temperatures drop to -25 degrees C with several feet of snow from December – March!

The school: 

There are two main schools in Mistissini, Voyageur Memorial Elementary School and Voyageur Memorial High School. There are two streams in the Elementary School, so students can choose to pursue their education in French or English. There is also a pre-school that is taught in Cree. All students take classes to learn the Cree language and Cree culture which is very important to the community as it should be. High school students even learn how to hunt and prepare animals such as moose for food!

The Cree Nation:

The Cree are the largest First Nations group in Canada. Most Cree people live in the plains and the subarctic regions of the provinces spanning from Alberta to Quebec. Cree is also the name of the spoken language which belongs to the Algonquin language family. Maintaining their language and their cultural traditions is very important to the Cree people and many time-honoured ceremonies and rituals are still practiced today.

Please pray that:

  • My transition to living here would go smoothly
  • I would be able to connect well with my students
  • I would be able to make friends with others in the community
  • I would find a church family to be part of
  • This unfamiliar place would begin to feel like home

Thank you friends, I really appreciate your prayers and support! If you want to write to me, I’d love to get your letters! My address is:

368 Mistissini Blvd, Apt. B, Mistissini, QB, G0W 1C0.

xo Tasha

Honour Your Father and Mother

Of the ten commandments given to us by God, I have consistently found this to be one of the most difficult to put into practice. Throughout my life, I have routinely fallen short in my quest to obey the fifth commandment, ‘Honor your father and mother…” Growing up, I was a rebellious and disobedient teenager. Even into my adult years, I struggled to be respectful in my interactions with my parents. I didn’t understand why it was so difficult until I participated in a program that taught on the topic of healing and forgiveness.   

I realized that although I had a deep love for my parents, it was buried under an avalanche of anger and resentment. As a child, I was deeply affected by my parents’ divorce and the tumultuous years that followed. I didn’t know how to deal with my pain at that age, so I attempted to ignore it. But as the years passed, the pain didn’t disappear, contrarily, it festered and grew into hostility and resentment.

As I dug deeper, I discovered that these negative emotions were fueled by unforgiveness; I was unable to move past my parents mistakes and sins. As I remained a prisoner to my own emotions, not only was my disobedience to God preventing me from experiencing His peace and joy, it was hardening my heart toward my parents and prohibiting me from honoring them the way God commands. But how do we honor our parents when we’ve been wounded by their sins? Are we still obligated to honor our mother and father when we don’t believe that it is deserved?

The answer is yes. God uses no uncertain terms in this regard. “Cursed is anyone who dishonors their father or mother….” Deuteronomy 27:16. These are powerful, indisputable words. God doesn’t say, ‘Honor your parents if…’ If they were perfect. If they never disappointed you. If they did everything right. No, God’s command does not come with any loopholes.

As children, we honor our parents through our obedience to them. As we move into adulthood, honoring them takes on a different role. Honor is defined as, ‘to regard with great respect and esteem’. How do we do this when it’s difficult, when we have been hurt, or when we don’t feel like it? Honoring, much like love, is not a feeling, but a choice. Here are three ways that we can practically obey God’s fifth commandment.

  1. Forgive our parents. We need to acknowledge that our parents are only human, with their own struggles, sins and limitations. When I made the conscious choice to forgive my mother and father, I was able to see them as broken people just like me, in need of grace. By extending grace and forgiveness to our parents, as God has first done for us, we not only honor them, but we honor God through our obedience.
  1. Affirm our parents. Instead of dwelling on the ways in which our parents have fallen short, we can choose to focus on the things our parents did well. We can thank them for the sacrifices they made and the support they provided throughout our lives. This includes not trying to change them, but instead honoring them despite their flaws. A little affirmation often goes a long way.
  1. Pray for our parents. We can ask God for His eyes and His heart toward our parents. Repent of the times that you’ve have fallen short of obeying God’s commandment. Pray to see your parents with compassion instead of bitterness and with appreciation instead of as a image of unmet explications. God wants to heal our hearts and give us the wisdom and discernment needed to honor our parents as He instructs us to.

Our love for God and our desire to bring Him Glory is demonstrated through our obedience. In the Bible, God declares, “If you love me you will obey my commandments.” John 14:15. As we seek to honor our parents through forgiveness, affirmation and prayer, we honor God through our obedience, displaying His power and glory for the world to see.

In Memory of…

My sweet friend, Athena tragically passed away on May 18th, one week after giving birth to her first child. Just 31 years old, she was a beautiful soul, confident, courageous and compassionate. I will especially miss her big, gorgeous smile and the way her eyes glinted when she laughed. She was wise beyond her years and throughout our friendship, she gave me guidance and encouragement that I will never forget. She lovingly challenged me to be a better person and for that I am forever grateful.

Here is a poem I wrote in her honour.

A radiant light shone deep from within,
T enacious and loyal, her warmth drew you in,
H er bubbly laugh was contagious and bright,
E ncouraging others with kind, tender might,
N urturing, loving, a wonderful friend,
A ripple of beauty that will never end.

Christmas in Athens!

Merry Christmas from Athens, friends! ❤

We arrived at our Airbnb at around 2:30am on Wednesday and the past few days have been a blur of jet lag, getting settled in and exploring the neighborhood. The place we’re staying is pretty cozy (read tiny) but it’s clean and the owner is really friendly so I’m happy.

I still can’t believe I’m spending Christmas and celebrating the new year in Greece this year! It’s only the second Christmas that I’ll be away from home so I’m feeling a little homesick, but I know that I’m where God has called me to be in this season, so thankfully, I have peace about it.

We’re starting our ministry in the refugee camps on the 28th. Until then, we’ve been doing some prayer walks and getting acquainted with the area.

I thought I’d post a few pics of the neighborhood so that you’ll have an idea of where we’re staying. Have a wonderful Christmas and New Year, friends!

Love you, all!

 

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Greek sweets for days.

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I love the colorful buildings.

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The square by our Airbnb.

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I ❤ Greece.

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Gyros are SO much better in Greece!

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Snowcapped mountains in the distance.

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Acropolis on the hill.

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Olives!