stats Making the Business of Life Easier

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Canada's Apartheid, by John Stackhouse
  Nov. 3

Welcome to Harlem on the Prairies
  Nov. 3 (Saskatoon, SK)

Crystal's choice: The best of both worlds
  Nov. 5 (Mississauga, ON)

How the Mi'kmaq profit from fear
  Nov. 6 (Cape Breton, NS)

The healing power of hockey
  Nov. 7 (The Pas, MB)

Norma Rae of the Okanagan
  Nov. 8 (Westbank, BC)

Comic genius or 'niggers in red face'?
  Nov. 9 (Regina, SK)

Praying for a miracle
  Nov. 10 (Lac Ste. Anne, AB)

To have and to have not
  Nov. 12 (Moosonee, ON)

Trouble in paradise
  Nov. 19 (Tofino, BC)

A cut of the action
  Nov. 26 (Wabigoon, ON)

The young and the restless
  Dec. 3 (Ashern, MB)

The wireless warrior's digital dream
  Dec. 10 (Ottawa,ON)

'Everyone thought we were stupid'
  Dec. 14 (Salluit, QC)

First step: End the segregation
  Dec. 15 (Last in the series)


Crystal's choice: The best of both worlds

Story by John Stackhouse. Photos by Patti Gower
The Globe and Mail, November 5, 2001


Missisauga locator As summer nears, Crystal and Amber have their dreams laid out in full. They both believe they're going places.

Amber is going to the cottage, and then to Italy and on to a Mediterranean cruise with her father and his second wife. In the fall, she hopes to return to Europe with her dance troupe, perhaps accompanied by her ailing mother, herself a former dancer.

Crystal has applied for a job at a native summer camp. She will also work at McDonald's to keep her bank balance in the $1,000 range. In Scarborough, her older sister Chantal has applied for welfare and is considering moving into a youth shelter. "I would never accept welfare," Crystal says, rejecting it as another native stereotype.

"I want to be an educated, smart, beautiful native woman. And I think I can be that."
Crystal Samms

For the first time in years, she feels her life is on track, and it thrills her. With good marks, nice clothes and a boyfriend, she has become so popular that other students mistakenly call her Amber. She also has become confident enough to want to try out for the school's soccer and track teams.

Life is going so smoothly that Crystal can see herself staying in Mississauga through high school and then winning a native scholarship to university. Parliament doesn't look so distant a dream, except that she finds politics "disgusting." Since she was 7, she has wanted to be a lawyer. "Or a writer," she says.

Then disaster strikes. One evening in June, yet another argument with her aunt about the house-wrecking party goes too far. She calls her mother. Her mother calls the Children's Aid Society. The school rushes to find her another place to stay, so she can finish her year.

So, as Amber prepares for a summer of fancy - now a hallmark of middle-class Canadian life - Crystal's dream is in tatters. She is sleeping on the sofa at a friend's apartment and once again working double shifts at McDonald's to pay for her share of the food. She couldn't bring herself to stay at Amber's, so close to her previous home.

When school ends, Crystal knows she has to move back to Scarborough, to her mother's small two-bedroom apartment and a mattress on younger sister Charlene's floor. She knows she'll be returning to the urban reserve.

But in a way, that's how she wants it.

Over the summer, she returns with her mother and sisters to Munsee-Delaware for a family celebration. Deanna can't help but notice how her relatives are friendlier - perhaps, she says, because of a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that gives her, as an off-reserve native, a status. In effect, the court has granted people like Crystal dual citizenship, saying she is not like the Jamaicans, Italians or Ecuadoreans in her school. She is not an ethnic minority. She is a native and a Canadian, and can live in a place like Toronto and still be both.

Crystal feels she can pull it off. She needn't be crushed by the city or abandon her reserve. "I want to be an educated, smart, beautiful native woman," she says. "And I think I can be that."

As she speaks, she is sitting at the eating table in her mother's apartment, a world away from both the comforts of Mississauga and the crisis of Munsee-Delaware. Outside, sirens wail. The public-housing block next door is packed with Tamil immigrants, and gang violence is almost an hourly event. When she started a new part-time job at a local deli, someone stole her bag, which contained her cellphone, her ID and about $40 in cash.

"It's better because I have people to relate to. It's at ease. I'm really at ease."
Crystal Samms on having
more fellow native students

At her new high school, the learning environment has been poisoned by years of labour disputes and student violence. The teachers, Crystal has noticed, show little interest in their students. And few of her classmates care.

The Grade 10 curriculum includes a "parenting" course that teaches students about the realities of having children. For one assignment, Crystal has to carry around an electronic baby for the weekend. Periodically, it begins to cry, stopping only when she inserts a special key.

As well as weaknesses, her new school has lots of native students, and Crystal prefers it that way. "There's a bunch of white people and a bunch of black people and a bunch of native people, and when anyone talks about culture, we say, `No way. Natives rule,' It's better because I have people to relate to. It's at ease. I'm really at ease."

She enjoyed Mississauga. She got to prove to herself and her mother that she can run her own life, which is what teenagers the world over like to do. She got a taste of suburban comfort too, and found how exciting school can be when administrators and teachers put their hearts into their work. It's something not many native kids get to see, on reserves or in the city.

But Crystal also found she wasn't ready for the outer suburbs, especially her aunt's street with 2,000-square-foot homes and kids without a care in the world, at least in their world.

"They all have houses," she says of her old friends, Amber included. "They all have cars. `Trust fund this and trust fund that.' They say, `I don't care if I pass. My father will pay for me to go to college.' "

Crystal learned, too, that her people were not the only ones struggling with alcohol and drugs, or with personal tragedy. Over the summer, when she was at Munsee-Delaware, Amber's mother died.

The two girls stay in touch by cellphone, gossipping about boys at Francis-Xavier and news of any good parties. But slowly they are drifting apart. Amber plans to quit dancing because it reminds her of her mother. Crystal is spending much more time with her mother, trying to sort out their differences and learn from their mistakes.

Twenty years ago, Deanna landed cold in Toronto and quickly lost her balance, perhaps a bit like someone from a far-off land who becomes alienated from both their new world and the old.

Today, Crystal is struggling with the same challenges in a very different city. She is trying to plant a foot in her mother's two worlds - one as stationary as the land underneath, the other as transient as the stream of airplanes overhead. And in between, she thinks she may yet find a world of her own.

THIS STORY AT A GLANCE (Parts 1 to 6):

Photo Essay
Bright lights, big city

1. 'This is my country'
On being the lone aboriginal in a suburban Toronto school

2. Crystal and Amber
An unlikely friendship

3. Crystal's family
Searching for a better life meant moving away from the reserve

Reader feedback
Check out what readers had to say about Crystal's Choice
4. Competing faiths
"I haven't decided if I want to believe in heaven or the devil," she says. "In my native faith, there is no heaven."

5. Geography class
Crystal takes up the cause of aboriginals from the north

6. Defying the urban reserve
'I want to be an educated, smart, beautiful native woman'



photo essays
Two worlds - photo essay

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