This week, I had the opportunity to sit and talk with Missanabie Cree First Nation (MCFN)’s Elder/Youth Coordinator, Jackie Fletcher. She was kind enough to share some of the information regarding Missanabie Cree’s relationship to the winter solstice, where our days will finally become longer again. This topic sparked my interest because the solstice was fast approaching (taking place on Dec 21st), and while I have read many different histories and accounts of Anishnaabe and Navajo cultures and the way that they perceive and acknowledge the solstice, I didn’t have a whole lot on the First Nation that I work for. I wanted to learn more, especially since, while astrology and natural occurrences are important in different capacities to all Indigenous groups, different Indigenous cultures have unique ways of celebrating and acknowledging the new year. So, I reached out to Jackie, as she has been coordinating a special two-day celebration of the winter solstice at the Wawa Motor Inn, which is the closest accommodation to the traditional homeland as possible. This is an opportunity for the community to come together to honour the natural occurrence and phenomenon the way that their ancestors did.
The event, Jackie explains, will consist of a number of activities, including a feast, sparklers, candles, and cake to honour the solstice. Some of the other activities allow for community members to get really creative, by crafting winter arts and writing and singing songs about winter. She describes it as a way for the community to escape from the commercialization, anxiety, loneliness, and depression that many feel around Christmastime – especially those with First Nations background who may not always feel as though they can fully relate to Christmas, a very Eurocentric holiday.
Community members will have the chance to bond with friends and family and prepare themselves mentally for the new year, creating vision boards for their future hopes and dreams, and burning in the fire what they wish to let go of. Traditionally, the solstice signifies a symbol of new beginnings, much like the ‘New Year’ does for many of us. This is the perfect way to illustrate what Jackie is doing with this event for MCFN. She described how it is a way to bring back their old traditions and incorporate them into the modern day, which promotes healing and the decolonization of many elements of settler culture that have been forced upon First Nations peoples, such as Christmas. It allows for the First Nation to make Christmas and winter celebrations their own, letting go of resentment, and transitioning the commercialization of Christmas into a natural experience that has deep historical roots, a practiced and sacred tradition, for MCFN.
It is a pilot program, with hopes of continuing for future solstices, and equinoxes as well. I wish Jackie, and all those travelling to Wawa for the event, safe travels, and the happiest of holidays. I hope this event goes well for the MCFN community so it can continue in future years. And, as Jackie said, hopefully next year they can be taking the train down to the event!
For more information on MCFN-led initiatives, or for how to contact Jackie or any other MCFN employee, visit us at our website. For more information on the train initiative specifically, check out our Facebook page.
Last month, I shared with all of you the story behind Canada’s 1st First Nation run train, Tshiuetin Rail. This week, the narrative of Indigenous rail development continues with Keewatin Railway Company (KRC), the second First Nations owned and operated train in our country. In 2003, as a result of the mine closure near Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, Hudson Bay Railway Company (HBR), owned by Omnitrax, an American-based company, announced its intention to abandon this rail line (Keewatin Railway Company, 2017). And thus, a plan was hatched between Tataskweyak Cree First Nation, Mathias Colomb Indian Band, and War Lake First Nation to solve the problem, and ensure connectivity in Manitoba for remote communities (Keewatin Railway Company, 2017). They began to seek commitment from various levels of government, and were extremely successful in doing so. They received $4.9 million grant dollars from the government of Canada, and $1.25 million from the government of Manitoba (Government of Canada, 2006). The three First Nations contributed $500,000, as a combined total, and thus the purchase of the line was made possible. Additionally, the federal government gave KRC $3.2 million dollars in start-up fees and investments, which covered the purchase of locomotives, rail equipment, transitional services, office equipment, and infrastructure rehabilitation on the rail line (Government of Canada, 2006). Much of this funding came directly from the Regional and Remote Rail Serviced Contribution Program, administered by Transport Canada.
As a result, on March 31st, 2006, KRC completed the purchase of Sherridon rail line from HBR. Experienced rail personnel were hired to train First Nations members for physical labour, management positions, and jobs and careers in administration. This has opened up a slew of opportunities for these First Nations communities. KRC now operates two round-trips per week, crossing 400-kilometres of remote wilderness, fourteen stations, a nine-hour trip in total, between the Pas and Pukatawagan (VIA Rail, 2017). However, passenger service is only one piece to their puzzle. KRC has also developed a freight service along the short-line, as well as nation-wide rail maintenance service (Keewatin Rail Company, 2017). Their ability to have expanded the rail service beyond the capabilities of its original service created a sustainable rail business, which is highlighted by the fact that, despite having old and battered rail cars, KRC managed to shave off 5-hours of average run time since taking over (Keewatin Rail Company, 2017). They have also kept up, maintained, and improved safety standards. With a strong emphasis on arctic tourism, and providing accessible and affordable transportation for people who take the train every week to do grocery and supplies shopping, as well as attend business meetings and appointments in the city, there is a diverse and viable ridership that is continually growing.
This particular rail is extremely important to the Cree First Nations who run it, as it highlights their complex and longstanding history with the rail. As the train was a part of colonization, bringing white settlers and their industrialization, it has now come full circle with the First Nations becoming the owners of the rail. KRC stated that it was extremely difficult for them to get a line of credit. Much like Tshiuetin, they found it difficult to build their credibility as a result of stereotypes and prejudice against Indigenous people (Keewatin Rail Company, 2017). However, their success has provided both respective areas with a much needed service and further developed business and rail skills to set them up for future successes. KRC has given quotes on the damaged rail in Churchill, and Mathias Colomb First Nations is one of the parties interested in purchasing it. KRC has also offered us at Missanabie Cree mentorship and guidance in our mission to restore the Algoma Passenger train.
Government of Canada. (May 2006). Manitoba Railway Line Transferred to First Nations Company. Government of Canada. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/news/archive/2006/05/manitoba-railway-line-transferred-first-nations-company.html?=undefined&wbdisable=true
Keewatin Railway Company. (2017). Passenger, Freight, Maintenance. Retrieved from www.krcrail.ca
Via Rail. (2017). The Pas – Pukatawagan Train. Retrieved from http://www.viarail.ca/en/explore-our-destinations/trains/prairies-and-northern-manitoba/the-pas-pukatawagan/description
(Photo from ATTN News)
While November 11th is an integral day for our nation to take the time to remember the sacrifices made by so many brave men and women fighting for peace and prosperity, November 8th is important to our Indigenous counterparts, who take this day to specifically remember those Indigenous people who sacrificed their livelihood, their culture, and, for many, their lives, in order to serve Canada. It is important to acknowledge those Indigenous veterans who returned home and “fell through the cracks,” primarily in the First World War, the Second World War, and the Korean War (Berthiaume, November 2016). In other words, they were shuffled from department to department, with bureaucracies in disagreement over who should be taking initiative to support and provide benefits to Indigenous veterans. Many faced crises in identity – both emotionally and officially on paper – as they missed out on elements of their culture, and therefore would lose out on the housing, educational, and other band provisions (Berthiaume, November 2016). However, the Canadian government was reluctant to give to them what they gave to non-Indigenous veterans, leaving them largely unsupported. With nowhere to turn, having been abandoned by their bands and by the Canadian government, many ended up homeless, hungry, or addicted to various substances. In 2000, the federal government offered an official apology and offered a compensation of $20,000 per veteran (Government of Canada, March 2017).
In addition to acknowledging these issues in the spirit of reconciliation, it is also a time to remember those who did not come back from the war at all. It is estimated that, between the First World War, the Second World War, and the Korean War, more than 12,000 Indigenous people joined the Canadian military. More than 500 were killed, and countless more were injured (Government of Canada, March 2017). The Veterans Affairs Department has stated that more Indigenous people served overseas in those global conflicts than any other ethnic group in Canada, as a percentage of their total population (Government of Canada, March 2017).
Indigenous soldiers were most valued for the skills they brought to the military, such as patience, bravery, stealth, and marksmanship, traits that were well-taught and passed down for thousands of years from hunting lifestyles (Government of Canada, March 2017). The First World War saw a number of Indigenous veterans become elite snipers, and the Second World War, with more modern technology, saw Indigenous soldiers serving as brave airmen and code talkers. Code talkers are an interesting concept because of the way they utilized the traditional language to contribute to the war effort. For example, Cree soldiers would interact on the radio, and then translate to the intended recipients on each end so that the enemy could not intercept the messages, thus keeping all operations as secretive as possible (Government of Canada, 2017).
Another often overlooked wartime effort that Indigenous people contributed to was on the home front. They donated money, food, and clothing, as many Canadians did, but they also graciously granted the use of portions of their reserve land to allow for the construction of new airports, rifle ranges, and fence installations, primarily in Ontario, Manitoba, and British Colombia (Government of Canada, March 2017). These are huge sacrifices that should not be overlooked when studying our history as a Canadian nation.
This spirit of resilience has outlasted the years, as there are currently more than 2,500 Indigenous people serving in the Canadian military (Government of Canada, March 2017).
Every year on November 8th, in various parts of the country, commemorations and ceremonies occur to honour specifically those Indigenous people who have served. While it is not yet an official day recognized by the government, it has been growing in size and scope since the first ceremony was inaugurated by Winnipeg’s city council in 1994 (Government of Canada, March 2017). Below is a photo of the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument, located in Ottawa, which was unveiled on National Aboriginal Day in 2001.
(Photo from Government of Canada)
The artwork was done by Lloyd Pinay, and the monument was funded by the National Aboriginal Veterans Association and generous donations from Canadian citizens (Government of Canada, August 2017). This monument is significant in its symbolism because it features four men and women from different Indigenous groups across the nation, as well as a bronze eagle, a wolf, a bear, a bison, and a caribou, all of which are powerful animals that represent spiritual guides to many Indigenous cultures (Government of Canada, August 2017).
Berthiaume, L. (November, 2016). National Aboriginal Veterans Day remembers thousands of Indigenous who served. The Canadian Press. Retrieved from http://www.metronews.ca/news/canada/2016/11/08/growing-debate-around-remembrance-of-canada-s-aboriginal-veterans.html
Government of Canada. (March 2017). Indigenous Veterans. Veterans Affairs Canada. Retrieved from http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/history/historical-sheets/aboriginal-veterans
Government of Canada. (August 2017). National Aboriginal Veterans Monument. Veterans Affairs Canada. Retrieved from http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrace/memorials/national-inventory-canadian-memorials/details/7972#photo1
Last week, I shared with you all my personal experience at the Gathering. This week, I wanted to share with you about one of the amazing lectures I attended in Missanabie. Missanabie Cree’s Community Development Coordinator, Gloria Harris’s, historical teaching of the Missanabie Cree was an amazing way for me to engage with the culture – while also satisfying the history buff that lives within! Learning about how the Missanabie Cree have struggled relentlessly in government negotiations to regain their traditional territory gave me a lot of perspective into the resilience and strength that they as a people have today.
Treaty No. 9 in 1906 skipped over Missanabie Cree First Nation, meaning that the government did not agree to negotiate with them, and in 1925, the Chapleau Game Preserve was created, spanning over two million acres across Missanabie Cree territory. Not only did this leave the First Nations without access to hunt and fish in order to sustain their lifestyle, but also without access to places that had been used for ceremonial purposes and to support the economic and cultural well-being of their people.
Additionally, not only did the First World War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War cause worldwide devastation, but it also created a number of barriers for the Missanabie Cree, as well as other First Nations, in moving their land claims forward, as wars were being fought on more fronts than ever before, and the government was preoccupied with a number of international crises that halted negotiations. Between those difficult years of 1905 to 1945, the Missanabie Cree started to disperse because their land claim, as well as access to their traditional rights to hunt and fish on the Chapleau Game Preserve, were taking too long. They, and their families, needed access to employment, education, and healthcare institutions. This resulted in the community leaving their traditional territory and scattering across much of Canada and the U.S.A.
In 1951, Missanabie Cree was formally recognized as a band, but this did not mark the end of hardship for their people. From 1952 to 1990, residential schools continued to take Indigenous children away from their families, and there have been huge intergenerational impacts on the First Nations since then. Many are still being felt today. I learned that this is one of the reasons that sobriety is so greatly celebrated in First Nations communities, as alcohol has been one of the many impacts of colonization, and alcohol rehabilitation has been a huge catalyst for change in these communities.
Gloria then referenced Crazy Horse, an 18th century Native American soldier, who said,
“Upon suffering, beyond suffering; the Red Nation shall rise again and it shall be a blessing for a sick world. A world filled with broken promises, selfishness, and separations. A world longing for light again. I see a time of seven generations when all the colours of mankind will gather under the sacred Tree of Life and the whole Earth will become one circle again.”
They say that Crazy Horse was a mystic, who could see into the future and knew all the ancient teachings. The long and tiresome upward battle that the Missanabie Cree, and many other First Nations, faced from 1992 on could be seen as “the Red Nation” truly rising again – out of the darkness of colonization.
1992 was the year that the first Chief and Council were elected, and they submitted their first Treaty Land Entitlement (TLE), and held their first Annual Gathering. In 1996, Ontario became a signatory in Treaty 9. In 1998, joint studies and legal reviews were conducted, led by Chief Shirley Horn, in order to explore and understand the full depth of what the Missanabie Cree as a people had lost. In 2006, under Chief Glenn Nolan, the Canadian government agreed to a land transfer of 15 square miles, and discussions continued for more land compensation based on the extent of loss under legal review. In 2008, Missanabie Cree turned down a $23 million dollar land settlement. Today, after years of Chief, Council, and the people as a whole passing the torch from generation to generation, the Missanabie Cree people, now under Chief Jason Gauthier, continue to fight for their land and economically develop Missanabie so that its people can return to their traditional territory again. As proudly expressed by Gloria in her teaching, a powerful group of children – the youngest generation of Missanabie Cree people – are rising, and they are educated and aware of their past and present. Gloria referred to them as the rainbow warriors, who will continue to lead their people into peaceful governance and community development in Missanabie.
As said by Craig Macfarlane, the motivational speaker that spoke with us at the Gathering, we need to think, what do we want our legacy to be? How are we going to face adversity? And I think the best answer to that question for the Missanabie community can be summed up by the phrase with which Gloria opened her lecture,
“if you know where you come from, you know where you are going.”
For more information on Gloria, Missanabie, and their traditional culture/teachings, click here
For more information on Craig Macfarlane, click here
August 12th to 17th, I had both the pleasure and honour of taking part in, and helping out with, the Annual Gathering at Missanabie. To say that I was nervous to go and take part in this cultural experience would be an understatement. But those nerves and doubts about leaving my comfort zone succumbed to my excitement to learn more about the culture of the people that I work with, and for, on a daily basis.
My drive up north allowed me to gain a greater appreciation for the number of small communities and areas that the Algoma passenger train used to serve, the communities that I myself am working tirelessly to help now, with the renewal of train service.
One of my tasks throughout the Gathering included serving the Firekeepers and the Sacred Fire. This gave me the opportunity to learn about a critical element of Cree culture, whereby the spirit realm and the human realm are connected through the Sacred Fire, giving us an intimate connection to those who have passed to the Spirit World. By feeding the fire, we are passing food along to those spirits so that the ancestors who have passed can share a meal with us. So every meal, I prepared one plate for the Firekeeper, who never left the fire’s side in order to ensure that it did not go out for the entire duration of the Gathering, and one plate for the fire, on a piece of birch bark, and sprinkled with tobacco. I would tell the fire my name, and say “Migwetch,” so it would know who has fed it and that we are thankful to bring the community in its entirety together again. As an outsider in many ways, this was a surreal experience for me to see tradition in practice – and even take part in it.
Throughout the first couple days of the Gathering, I got to see the Eagle Staff, which represents the various entities that make up the community. I learned that it is important for Eagle Staffs to spend quality time with other Eagle Staffs so that they can be nurtured; the same way that we nurture ourselves by socializing and engaging with other communities. In my opinion, the most beautiful thing about the Eagle Staff is the sanctity of the eagle itself. Since it flies the highest, it is believed that eagles can speak directly to the Creator, making it and its feathers highly revered.
There were some times when we had a little fun, too. Councillor Sean Pine took me on a little backroading tour of Missanabie so that I could really see the territory for myself, including the old Renabi Gold Mine site, which had driven many Missanabie people from the traditional territory as settlers came to work on the prosperous gold mine following the Second World War. Not only was it a blast to speed through the bush and see all of what nature had to offer, but it was also amazing to think, “wow, one day this will be a community with infrastructure.” The Missanabie Cree people really are making history, and nothing put it into greater perspective than actually seeing that for myself.
My favourite day of the Gathering by far was when I set up a booth with the other businesses and joint ventures that Missanabie has. It was an amazing way to meet the business community that works alongside the Missanabie Cree, while also getting to know the community itself a little better, too. I was so pleased with how open everyone was to hearing about the train initiative and what I have been working on specifically since May. I cannot thank the Missanabie community enough for being so accommodating and engaging with me about the train project. I hope you all realize how much it meant to me to attend and help out with the Gathering, and I encourage you all to stay in touch with the train initiative and continue to let me know what you think so we can work together to build upon this opportunity for the Missanabie Cree people!
Stay tuned for part two of this blog series, where I talk about some of the history and some more of the culture that I learned at the Gathering!