With my urban New York existence, do I ever think in my lifetime I’d be in North Ontario and actually witness an Official Signing of a Historic Treaty between the Whitefish River First Nation and the Canadian Government? Yet here I am, wide-eyed, waiting to observe the ceremony for the Specific Indian Land Agreement that officially returns 1859 acres of surrendered land to the Whitefish River First Nation.
Chief Leona Nahwegahbow represents Whitefish River, while Algoma-Manitoulin MP Brent St. Denis joins John Parker, Parliamentary Assistant to Charles Harnick, Attorney General, and Yan Lazor, Secretary of Ontario Native Affairs for the Official Signing. That’s the headline news.
I drive in from Sudbury, under heavy grey skies, and reach the Community Centre on Birch Island minutes before the ceremony. Birch Island’s Land Manager Esther Osche is my friend and I’m eager to see her. Over the years, she’s told me charming Aboriginal stories, one how her grandfather learned to call thunder. “It is important to know how to call thunder, and I will tell you about it,” said she, and I wrote it all down.
Though the sky threatens to open up over us, the Centre is cheerfully filled with almost 200 people. Here’s Sudbury lawyer and his charming wife Irene, who have a place nearby. I sit with them and take out my pen and paper.
Commencing the ceremony, Chief Leona welcomes us all and Elder Violet MacGregor offers a prayer. The handsome young braves of the N’Skawndin Drum Group sit in a circle and present drama and power in their Welcoming Song which reverberates through the hall, almost, it seems to me, to tempt the heavens this afternoon. This experience feels like I am smack in the middle of a fantastic movie, about to witness a treaty signing! This is not a time for writing. I drop my pen, and stand with the others to honor the arrival and strength of this day.
MP Brent St. Denis makes a warm, wonderful introduction: “It takes ten hours for me to drive from one end of our Riding to the other. I get days and weeks in Ottawa and never get a sense of fulfillment that I get today today with all of you at this historic occasion.”
John Parker is delighted as well to take part in the signing, noting: “This Specific Lands Agreement fits squarely within the Provincial Government’s economic strategy for Aboriginal Peoples. The previous strategy of make-work projects ran out when the money ran out. Now the government’s strategy of working partnerships with Aboriginal Peoples will fare better. We’re working to have opportunities to creat partnerships in industry, communities and to pursue opportunities that have staying power. Land claims are part of this. If properly negotiated, we see this as more than settling a claim, we see this as building for the future.”
Other dignitaries mention the long negotiations that were held, using a phased approach to reclamation. Chief Leona declares: “It is signifigant to keep the land surrounding our reserve. The return of the land is far more important than money. If we hold on to our land it is there forever for our future generations.” She echoes my personal beliefs, more for sustainable tourism. For sustainable anything, we must think 20 to 30 years ahead to protect perishable resources. It seems so evident here in Ontario.
Though I travel for work, in and out of other societies and cultures, it’s here that my personal and spiritual attachment to North Ontario deepens with each passing year, spontaneously cultivated with affection and discovery. Chief Leona, Violet and Esther show me strength and dignity as First nation people.
At the exact moment of Signing, a dramatic act of nature occurs—three spectacular strikes of thunder crackle over the building! Is Esther’s grandfather cheerfully commenting on today’s auspicious events? Great Spirits are surely in evidence today! There’s exquisite mystery in our universe. I love being here.
Having partaken of my first sweat lodge a few years ago with local friends on Birch Island, the memory of that ceremony, the intense heat of the grandfather stones, and the sharing remain vivid, as I continually absorb pieces of this culture. I’ve beat a small drum and chanted, which at first felt absurd with my Broadway show-tune voice. Esther showed me how to let all that go, to allow the wind, trees and fields to pass through my soul to my voice. Hard work and it’s a different feeling.
Ah, here’s our feast of turkey, roast beef, ham, veggies and salad, the works! As a privileged passerby, even I resonate for the pride of ground gained today. Each of us seek peace and prosperity in our own way, yet cooperation is celebrated today. The sky’s the limit, I natter to myself, if I can only keep lookin’ up. On the way to Manitoulin, being around the Whitefish Nation feels real good.