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.
“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.”
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.
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 …
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.
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 —
“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.
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.”
Schooling was provided on the reserve by missionaries, although a number of children were shipped off to residential schools.”
“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.”
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.
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.
The photographs are haunting, compelling pieces of a past that demands acknowledgement …
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.
This is Chief Charles Big Canoe (1834 – 1930), Deanna’s great grandfather, grandson of Chief Joseph Snake —
Here’s Albert BigCanoe, great grandpa Charles’ brother —
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 …
… and here’s Andrew BigCanoe (Uncle Andy) who served as Chief for a time —
This is Aunt Wanda —
… and Deanna’s dad, Bud Big Canoe —
“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.”
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.
“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?”
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.”
“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.
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.
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.)