First Nations documentary turns Chatham woman's life upside down

She had no idea what she was getting into, but it turned out to be the adventure of a lifetime.

Born in Chatham, Jamie-Sue Sykes spent most of her adult life in Ingersoll working in a fast-paced, high-paying job. Then she answered a casting call for “First Contact," a new three-part series from the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.

Throughout the casting process -- consisting of a series of interviews and surveys -- Sykes and her fellow castmates weren’t entirely sure what the reality documentary television series was going to be about. Then, the first week of August, she got on a plane to Winnipeg and set off to spend 28 days in First Nations communities across Canada.

“First Contact” sees itself as a step on the path to reconciliation. Produced by APTN, Season Two has already finished filming. The series takes average Canadians and drops them in First Nations communities for honest, emotional conversations.

“I hadn’t had much interaction with those communities before,” said Sykes. “I’d heard rumours and read the typical negative press, but never interacted with them. So for me, this was a huge eye opener.”

Sykes said not all of the six cast members were as open-minded as she was.

“We had heated conversations but in the end, we’re a television family now,” said Sykes. “It was an eye-opener for me to watch the other cast members have their minds changed.”

While there were too many good moments to pick a favourite, Sykes most fondly remembers her time in Nunavut.

“Seeing the icebergs, walking through a stream that has been there for hundreds of years, and learning about the lifestyle of the Inuit was one of the best parts,” said Sykes.

Sykes said the First Nations people were happy to have them. Children especially were excited to see them.

“They literally invited us into our homes. We slept there, we ate dinner at their tables,” said Sykes. “It was amazing to see all the good that they’re doing.”

Immediately after filming wrapped up, Sykes got back on a tiny plane and headed back to the fly-in community of Muskrat Dam Lake First Nation. She spent a month working as a youth worker at their rehabilitation and treatment centre for addictions counselling. The Muskrat Dam community has not had clean drinking water since 2003.

“Spending my month there really drove home the importance of community and family to me,” said Sykes.

So she came home to Chatham-Kent.

“I’ve come back now to my own community to be an advocate for any causes I feel need a voice,” said Sykes, who has worked on causes including youth homelessness and financial literacy advocacy.

Sykes thinks the docuseries would be an excellent resource for teachers to use.

“You’re first starting to learn about residential schools and the long-term effects in school,” said Sykes. “This series, as a tool, will help show [residential schools] through real people.”

Sykes hasn’t reached out yet to local First Nations. She was waiting until the docu-series was public so that she had that behind her to approach local communities.

“I just want to see if I can be of service in any way," she said.

The three-part series airs September 11, 12 and 13 on APTN. The entire series will be available to stream in Canada September 17.

Read More Local Stories