Deanna’s Story

This is Deanna BigCanoe. She is a member of Ojibwe First Nation (also known as Chippewa) and lives on the First Nation reserve on Georgina Island, Lake Simcoe in Southern Ontario.

There’s something in her eyes that compelled me to learn her story.

So I did.

Deanna was waiting for me at the jetty (August 2017)

 

IMG_1039
Georgina Island on Lake Simcoe, Ontario

Welcome to the island,” she said when I stepped off the boat. “I’ll take you to the Community Centre first. You can get all the pictures you want.”

IMG_0985
Approaching Georgina Island, one of hundreds of islands scattered across Lake Simcoe.

 

The Georgina Island Community Centre

 

IMG_1004
Georgina Island ladies posing at the community centre.

Dozens of black-and-white-photographs plastered the walls of the Centre’s auditorium, the ever present past, each picture a poignant piece of hidden history.

Islanders remembered …
IMG_0989
Deanna posing with a parade of people from her family tree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1035
A ‘dreamcatcher’ made by islanders hangs in the entrance hall of the community centre, above a framed line-up of Chippewa chiefs.

Deanna pointed out notable figures from her ancestry and I perched on chairs to catch the best camera-angles on my phone.

Here’s Ann, daughter of Chief Joseph Snake …

IMG_1013
Ann, daughter of Chief Joseph Snake

In the 1800’s settlers began encroaching on First Nations soil. For fear of losing their land the Chippewas of Southern Ontario gave up hunting to become farmers on Snake Island on Lake Simcoe. They were successful in their new way of life until the colonial government ordered Chief Joseph Snake and his band to leave Snake Island and move to a reserve in the Coldwater area.

Back at ground zero, the Chippewas built a road, a mill, churches and homes. Their farms began to thrive.

In 1836, First Nations leaders were tricked into a deal they believed would grant them title to more than 10,000 acres of land. The agreement which was signed without any legal representation on behalf of the Chippewas, turned their land over to the Crown. In exchange for three million acres of fertile land in Upper Canada (now Ontario) they received twenty-three thousand islands scattered across Lake Simcoe.

In 1838 Chief Snake moved his band back to Snake Island. The once bountiful farmland was in a dismal state of neglect. His people were afraid that when the area became productive again, their land would once more be snatched away from them.

By the mid eighteen seventies most of the Band members left Snake Island and moved to Georgina Island were they could farm on a larger scale.

IMG_1018
A group photo commemorating the move from Snake Island to Georgina Island (circa 1870’s)

The water level at the time was only ankle deep from the landing to the Sand Islands which are connected to Georgina Island and was shallow enough to walk cattle across the water to the mainland.

The faded photos speak for themselves, a vivid testament to life as it grew to be —

IMG_1006
The Big Canoe farm
IMG_1019
Comrades …

 

IMG_1008
Old Lady Big Snail
IMG_1007
Out on the porch: Old lady Big Snail and her family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1010
Island damsels
IMG_1023
The Blackbirds: portrait of an island family

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Sunday was church day, back in the day. Almost everyone went to church on Sundays,” Deanna commented as she unlocked the red-painted church door with a key borrowed from the community centre next door.

IMG_0998
The original island church
IMG_1044
Deanna at the door of the present church, next door to the community centre.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1054
The graves of departed ancestors resting in the quiet island churchyard
IMG_1047
First Nations symbolism on the church altar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1048
A piece of native art behind the church pulpit
IMG_1051
Ojibwe translation of the Lord’s Prayer hanging in the church

 

IMG_1045
Banner hanging above the main doorway at Chippewas Native United Church, Georgina Island.

The supply of fresh water was piped out from the lake. Fish was the main diet of the islanders. The men fished to provide food for their families and earn an income. Blocks of ice were cut out of the lake in the winter, insulated with saw dust and stored in sheds to provide refrigeration during the warm months.

“People made baskets for a living in my parents’ generation,” Deanna said. “They took the baskets down to Sutton and Newmarket and sold them there. They used White Ash and Black Ash.”

IMG_1001
Coming ashore …
IMG_1020
Baskets for sale.

Schooling was provided on the reserve by missionaries, although a number of children were shipped off to residential schools.”

IMG_0999
Outside the schoolhouse. Elementary schoolers and their teacher
IMG_1062
The Georgina Island Waabgon Gamig First Nation School where it stands today.

“In the last one hundred years,” Deanna told me, “the Canadian government stole native children from their parents and placed them in residential schools. Kids as young as three. Many of them died in these institutions, from sickness, abuse, suicide. Their parents were never informed and the children were buried in graves outside the premises. Those who survived lost their language. They had forgotten their culture. When they finally came home they couldn’t communicate with their families.”

IMG_0997
Old schoolhouse beside the original church

 

IMG_0996
Inside the island schoolhouse (circa 1950’s)
 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1061
The island elementary school at its present location.
20170824_135253
Older students are now bussed to school on the mainland.

 

 

 

 

 

When the Trent-Severn Waterway was completed in the 20’s and 30’s, the water table of the lake rose by several feet and drowned the wild rice (the main staple of the Chippewas) which grew around Georgina Island. Boats became the only mode of transport to and from the mainland, while walking across became an option only in the winter when the lake froze over.

The islanders were now completely cut off from the mainland.

IMG_1022
Ice hockey – fun on a frozen lake.

Electricity and a phone line (which was a party line serving the entire island) were only implemented in the late 50’s. Indoor plumbing came in the late 60’s.

IMG_0997
The old church (left) situated next to the old island school.
Posing on the stairs of a fine, two-storey building
Posing on the steps of a 2-storey building.

 

The photographs are haunting, compelling pieces of a past that demands acknowledgement …

IMG_1017
All dressed up to celebrate.

Although conscription was not mandatory for First Nations peoples, World Wars I and II, saw a record number of patriotic Georgina Island men enlist in the armed forces.

IMG_1042
Memorial to the islanders who perished in World Wars I and II

 

 

IMG_1027
Patriots and war veterans – Sam York and Enoch BigCanoe

This is Chief Charles Big Canoe (1834 – 1930), Deanna’s great grandfather, grandson of Chief Joseph Snake —

IMG_1034
Chief Charles BigCanoe, resplendent in native regalia.  He served as chief from 1881 – 1911.
IMG_1040(1)
Charles BigCanoe was the fifth chief of the band, President of the Grand Council of Chiefs of Ontario, life member of the York Pioneers and Historical Society, a lively storyteller and for 40 years a passionate Methodist Preacher.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1099
Chief Charles Big Canoe’s portrait hangs in the community centre

Here’s Albert BigCanoe, great grandpa Charles’ brother —

IMG_1011
Albert Bigcanoe great grandpa Charles’ brother, with two dummies on his lap. He was a ship’s captain and ventriloquist.

 

 

IMG_1012
Captain Albert BigCanoe

This is Chief Lorenzo Big Canoe, Deanna’s grandfather, who was a teacher at the island schoolhouse. He multi-tasked as elected chief and manager of the post office which he operated out of his home …

IMG_0991
Lorenzo BigCanoe looking dapper and pensive “My grandpa Lorenzo had a pickup truck, ” Deanna said. “He also owned a big boat that seated 10 to 12 passengers. He drove folks in the pickup to the dock and them ferried them across the water in his boat.”
IMG_1015
In glamour-girl mode, Teresa (Tessie) BigCanoe, Grandpa Lorenzo’s wife. Lorenzo BigCanoe graduated from Lakeville University and obtained a teaching post at the Kanawakee Reserve where he met Theresa. Tessie, who was a Jehovah’s Witness, lost her hearing when her son, Bud, (Deanna’s dad) was a baby.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1014
Grandpa Lorenzo (seated) and his siblings.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1032
Lorenzo BIgCanoe in chief’s feathered headgear.

 

 

 

 

IMG_1009
Maggie BigCanoe (right) – Lorenzo’s sister (also known as Maggie Jack) – lived in the middle of the bush.  She never married.  She was a medicine woman and legend has it that she was a shape-shifter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

… and here’s Andrew BigCanoe (Uncle Andy) who served as Chief for a time —

IMG_1033
Uncle Andrew BigCanoe
IMG_1016
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau meets Uncle Andy on Georgina Island

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is Aunt Wanda —

IMG_0990
Wanda Big Canoe did a stint in Hollywood. Here she is with silver-screen idol, Clark Gable and another actress..

 

… and Deanna’s dad, Bud Big Canoe —

IMG_1005
Bud BigCanoe with Deanna’s sister, Trish (centre) and second wife, Joan.

 

IMG_1003
Bud BigCanoe with his children. Deanna (standing, centre). “My sister, Cynthia (Cindy, far left) was born before my parents were married. Cynthia met her biological father (my dad, Bud) for the first time when I was about ten years old.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1052
Bud BigCanoe’s grave in the island churchyard.

 “Mom and Dad were legally married. Mom was Algonquin. My dad made boilers for nuclear plants,” Deanna remembered. “He earned an hourly wage that was a huge fortune in the sixties. Dad was away from home from Sunday night to Friday night. He came home drunk and stayed drunk all weekend. Sometimes my mom and he would beat each other up.  Mom was mean and abusive. She never knew how to be a mother, you know. Her mom, my grandmother Stella, was raised in a residential school and didn’t know anything about a normal family life. Guess Mom didn’t have an example to follow or anyone to learn from. ”

Until the late 50’s, it was illegal for the Indians to bring booze onto the island, or go to a bar. If you were a First Nations person and wanted a alcohol, you had to sell your birthright – hand over your ‘native’ card. In return you were given a card stating that you were ‘unregistered’. Then the drinking ban was lifted in the early sixties and the abuse of little girls began.”

IMG_1104

Deanna paused for a moment and I perceived the depth of pain in her eyes. She said, “And they did nothing about it.”

I asked why.

“Because some of the men were relatives or your father’s friend. Everyone on the island went to church before alcohol was permitted on the island,” she said. “The booze changed everything. The jamborees didn’t feel safe. Many places didn’t feel safe anymore.”

First Nations land may not be sold to non-natives, so the land-rich, cash-poor residents parcel their properties out on 50-year lease to city-dwellers looking for a lake-side summer getaway. Their luxury cottages loom over the modest dwellings of the owners. The contrast is glaring.

All shopping, apart from the basics available at the General Store, has to be done on the mainland which is a ten-minute boat ride away. This boat must be shared with cottagers and holidaymakers. The last boat leaves the mainland at 9.30 pm after which time the residents are completely cut off from the mainland until morning.

IMG_1067
The island general store.
20170824_132807
The last boat leaves the mainland at 9.30 pm

“So what do the kids have for entertainment?” I wondered.

“They play in the bush,” she said.

Her parents moved to the mainland when she was five years old. Deanna quit school in Grade 9. Her first daughter was born when she should have been in Grade 10.

“I was a single mom raising six kids on my own. I had four under four for awhile. I paid the rent and bought the food and that’s that. We survived on welfare and food banks. There wasn’t money to go out for dinner — maybe once or twice a year — but I took my kids to church on Sundays. We never felt accepted in the church, though. I felt rejected. Most native people feel that way. That’s why we are often reserved.”

“Why? Because of the weight of history?”

20190708_165132~3
A teepee out in the bush (2017)

She nodded. “Yes. And because all the men in my life were abusers, I taught my three boys to never hit a woman. “

Indigenous woman and girls are five times more likely to experience violence than any other population in Canada.

Deanna moved her family back to the island twenty two years ago.

“What are the benefits you receive as a native person living on the reserve?”

“40% off eyeglasses, 80% off dental, almost 90% off prescriptions and items delivered to the island are tax exempt.”

“How do you qualify for welfare?”

“Some reserves pay monthly welfare. There’s treaty money from a claim which was settled five to six years ago . Each member got a $ 1,000 cash disbursement. Kids, when they turn 21, get their portion with back pay and interest. Everyone continues to get $1000 year for life. There’s $90 million of settlement money for the band, now in reserve in the bank. There’s also another settlement in the works. To do with the raising of the water level on the island. About 20 years ago it became politically incorrect to refer to us as Indians.”

I scribbled notes and posed questions while she remembered and shared.

“My sister, Becky, lives in a straw bale house.” There was pride in Deanna’s voice. “She’s an artist and a writer.”

IMG_1068
Becky’s straw-bale home. Deanna’s sister, Becky has founded an organization called Enviro Native Strong Woman’s Learning Centre. The purpose of this initiative is to teach women how to build sustainable housing – ‘yurts’, straw-bale houses (like hers), houses made of old tires and Straw/cob (straw mixed with clay) houses

 

IMG_1079
Deanna holding a piece of her sister Becky’s vivid artwork in the living room of the charming straw-bale house (literally built from bales of straw and plastered over).
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1078
Eye-popping colours inside Becky’s unique straw-bale home

“Becky wants to teach women how to build sustainable housing.”

“For what reason?”

“Because there’s a lack of men.”

The desolate reality …

The relationship between the islanders and the mainland police is uneasy. The absence of strong male role models is glaring and has taken its toll. The high school dropout rate is high.

Mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse run rampant, unleashing an endless chain of tragedy on tragedy.

Within the period of months Deanna experienced the heartbreak of losing two sons to drug overdose. Isaac was 26 years old and Nathan, 34, was the father of a young daughter.

 

20190708_150219~2
A funeral collage to commemorate the life of young Isaac BigCanoe, Deanna’s son whose life was snuffed out in 2019

 

isaac
Rest in peace, Isaac.

 

 

 

 

 

facebook_1597268137797_6699428139438178290
A promising student and young entrepreneur, Nathan BigCanoe in his younger days. Gone too early at age 33.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

nathan
RIP Nathan BigCanoe (seated) with younger family members.

Deanna has busy days helping with the care of some of her eight grandchildren. She has dreams of implementing initiatives for First Nations young people. To bring them from up north to the island and provide vocational training and tools to succeed in life.

The Georgina Island band is now led by its first elected woman chief. Progress, perhaps.

I asked Deanna, “What message do you want me to convey through this story?”

She didn’t hesitate. “We are still here,” she said. “Still struggling. Still forgotten.”

Generations of wrongdoing. Born from of the pain of the past, it oozes into this present moment’s tragedy and lurks in her eyes.

I caught the 1.30 boat back to the mainland where I’d parked my car.

I had much to process and think about. I lay wide-eyed under the weight of Deanna’s story.

It took me awhile to fall asleep that night.

 

20190708_170246_HDR~2
Grandma D holding her newborn grandchild.
20190708_165718~2
Fire-pit ceremony at Isaac Big Canoe’s funeral (2019).
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1037
A handbill on the notice board at the community centre (2017)

 

 

IMG_1064
Sandy Beach, a small strip of lakefront reserved for the exclusive use of First Nations islanders.
IMG_1050
The First Nations way of life — a poster seen at the community centre.

 

img_1093.jpg
Lake Simcoe, steps away from Deanna’s back door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

An education fund has been set up for Nahlia, young daughter of the late Nathan Big Canoe.   Click here to donate.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Watch a compelling testimony about the Residential School system in Canada —

Watch Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apology to residential school survivors —

(This story was authorized and approved by Deanna Big Canoe. All photos are used with permission.)

 
Share this story, PASS it ON. (check out the BUTTONS BELOW.)
FOLLOW THIS BLOG AND RECEIVE NEW POSTS BY EMAIL: (GO TO FOLLOW BUTTON BELOW OR ON SIDE BAR OR CLICK HERE)
LIKE THIS AUTHOR’S FACEBOOK PAGE: CLICK HERE
 
CLICK HERE FOR THURSDAYS WITH HAROLD, the new novel BY SELINA STAMBI SelinascoverKobo
 

10 thoughts on “Deanna’s Story

  1. Dear Nali aka Selina stambi

    I am so glad that you are still dreaming. Thoroughly enjoyed reading but with some sadness at how the native Americans had been treated.

    Love,

    Raju Annah

    On Wed, 26 Aug 2020 at 10:24, Never 2 Old 2 Dream wrote:

    > Selina Stambi posted: “This is Deanna BigCanoe. She is a member of Ojibwe > First Nation (also known as Chippewa) and lives on the First Nation reserve > on Georgina Island, Lake Simcoe in Southern Ontario. There’s something in > her eyes that compelled me to learn her story. So I ” >

    Like

  2. Dearest Selina! I just finished reading this documentary on Deanna’s Story and the history of the Big Canoes’s family heritage. It was so well done and so enlightening to see and live out Deanna’s life and heritage with such great pictures and narration. I feel the pain of Deanna’s story and I just want to hug her and tell her that she is so loved of God. Thank you for sharing Deanna’s story as it truly has impacted my heart as well. In his love! Cathy

    Like

  3. My dear friend, Such a detailed and beautifully told story giving us insight into the lives of First Nations people. Your inquiring nature and love for history is so clearly shown in this documentary and not only provides information but also allows us to experience the emotions of those who were so badly abused. Thank you for enlightening many who wouldn’t have had a clue about these precious lives, and their very difficult and real struggles. Blessings,

    Joan

    On Wed, 26 Aug 2020 at 00:54, Never 2 Old 2 Dream wrote:

    > Selina Stambi posted: “This is Deanna BigCanoe. She is a member of Ojibwe > First Nation (also known as Chippewa) and lives on the First Nation reserve > on Georgina Island, Lake Simcoe in Southern Ontario. There’s something in > her eyes that compelled me to learn her story. So I ” >

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.