Chief Wayne Wabie called me this past week to share news that his community had officially been acknowledged as a First Nation by the Canadian government. This was a conversation of pure happiness, joy and relief.
Other First Nation governments have long recognized Chief Wabie’s community, Beaverhouse First Nation, as part of the family. They have always been seen by Indigenous people as a First Nation. The problem was that the federal government chose not to confer this status on the people of Beaverhouse, denying their rights to the land they inhabited for time immemorial.
I have been working with First Nations in Northern Ontario for many years. Beaverhouse was one community that I have had the privilege to follow for a long time. I had a chance to interview the late Chief Roy Meaniss on several occasions about the struggle he and his community faced in seeking formal recognition.
In fact, Chief Meaniss was the main advocate in starting this long process in the 1980s. Chief Gloria McKenzie then took up the struggle in the early 2000s and later Chief Sally Susan Mathias-Martel pursued the same struggle. Chief Mathias is more famously known by her previous name Marcia Brown-Martel. She led another fight that is closely associated to the community – the Sixties Scoop, a period in Canadian history that saw the removal of Indigenous children from their families to be placed in non-Indigenous homes away from their communities and their culture.
The recent fight for recognition was invigorated by the youthful energy of Chief Wabie, who served under Chief Meaniss and the other chiefs. Over the years most of those lobbying for First Nation recognition did so on a volunteer basis as there was little funding available. Nishnawbe-Aski Nation (NAN), our regional organization for the Treaty 9 area, provided much-needed assistance along with support by Wabun Tribal Council of which Beaverhouse is a member. Grand Chief Derek Fox was on hand for the historic announcement.
Over the years I had the opportunity to interview Elders such as Wayne’s father Tom Wabie. I also worked on stories with the late Clara Mathias and the late Emmaline MacPherson. These wonderful Elders were born into traditional lifestyles on the land, spoke their language and embodied the strong spirit of their people. It was sad, frustrating and difficult to hear the stories they shared of living in a world where they were forgotten and set aside for the simple fact that a government chose to ignore them.
In 1905 and 1906, when Treaty 9 was being signed in northern Ontario, the Canadian government worked hand in hand with the Hudson Bay Company to organize adherence by the region’s First Nations to the treaty. The company labelled every new First Nation according to where their trading posts were located. Beaverhouse had the unfortunate distinction of not falling under one of these trading posts and due to the ignorance of a private company, this community was left out of the treaty.
Being left out meant that they had no special rights to the land they lived on, no compensation for all the companies that ran across their hunting grounds and no control over what they could or couldn’t do in the territory they called home. As government and private enterprises made enormous fortunes on Beaverhouse land, the community was left with nothing and no compensation for the land that was taken and the livelihoods they lost. They could not even get jobs.
The lack of recognition or a land base meant that they were forced to live in communities where Indigenous people were not welcome. It must have been a difficult space to occupy. On one hand they could not survive on their homelands due to the encroachment of industry and on the other hand they were not welcome to join in the development.
Racism was a normal part of life back then and it made an Indigenous person’s life difficult. I can only imagine how much worse it was for the people of Beaverhouse, who had no land and no recognition.
The remembrance of this sad and difficult 100-year period for Beaverhouse is what makes the news of the recognition by the government so profound. It now means that the community can begin asserting their rights to the land they were born on and where their ancestors lived for many generations.
It is sad to realize that all those Elders who had to deal with such a hard life could not be here today to finally see the fulfillment of their struggle for their homeland. I know in my heart that these ancestors would be so happy to know that future generations have a chance at a brighter and more prosperous future.
Nee-nas-koo-min mee-see-way kee-nee-wah-o oo-chee (I send my praises to all of you).