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COLUMN: Indian Act be damned; grandson will learn his heritage

Columnist recently became a grandfather and vows to ensure his new grandson learns to 'understand his Anishinaabe ways of living'
Jeff Monague, right, vows to teach his new grandson, Benji, about the importance of his heritage.

I recently began a new part of my journey through this physical realm of human existence. A young spirit was gifted to my family in the physical form as my grandson, Benji. With that, I became a Mishomis (Mish-oh-mis) — Grandfather.

I am transitioning into this new time, this new space. I envision the journey that is ahead for my new Noozhenh (Noh-zheh-nh) — Grandson. He is part Anishinaabe (Ah-nish-ih-naw-beh).

Benji is potentially the last of his kind. Thanks to Canada and the Indian Act, my Noozhenh will be the last person in my line who will hold Indian Status under Canada’s quirky policies regarding Indigenous people and blood quantum. I want him to know of this. I want him to know how we got here. How our very existence as a people is being challenged and how he and his kind are in danger of being erased forever.

I want Benji to know that he is a child born into a wild experiment dreamed up by a people who would usurp his ancestors of their inherent rights upon their own lands. This ongoing experiment removed them from their traditional lands and changed who they are forever; to the point of our present day, where Benji would stand to be recognized as Anishinaabe, but not his descendants.

Benji was born into being a part of Canada under a stifling legislation known as the Indian Act. This document is, and always has been, a racist document and it was used as a tool to suppress his people. This document tried to smother and extinguish his hereditary council fires and imposed a doctrine of assimilative practices that have resulted in an ongoing cultural genocide, a genocide that is all too close to being completed.

Benji’s ancestors were the first “Indians” in Canada to be removed from their traditional lands and displaced onto a reserve in the 1830s at Coldwater in Ontario. The Coldwater Narrows Reserve would provide the template from lessons learned by the oppressors that would form the basis for Canada’s Indian Act. Benji will know of this. Benji will know that his people had no part in the creation of this legislation other than to be the subjects of the experiment.

Through Anishinaabe oral history Benji will become aware that during the time of his ancestors' removal from their ancestral territory, when they were forced onto the first ever reserve in Canada, there were people like him, part native, who arrived into this same land. They, too, had become a displaced people. They had been displaced from Drummond Island, which after 1812 had become a part of the United States.  

They were the Voyageurs, and they began arriving in the Penetang area around 1828 and settled smack dab in the middle of the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg Tri-Council — Benji’s ancestors

The British referred to them as the half-breeds. Métis didn’t become fashionable until much later during the Riel era. And they were given an ultimatum: either go live on the reserve at Coldwater with the Indians as an Indian or denounce their Indian lineage and live as a white man. If they denounced their Indian lineage, they would receive a parcel of land and be a part of white society forever. 

None of the Voyageurs chose the Coldwater Narrows Reserve. As a matter of fact, many of them would become employees of the British Crown and serve at Coldwater Narrows Reserve as blacksmiths and carpentry instructors.

Benji will be saddened to learn that those same people are recognized today by Canada as Indigenous even though they lack the same ancestral ties to the land that Benji’s descendants will. And Benji’s descendants will have been erased. Under Canada’s policies they will cease to be Anishinaabeg.

These remembrances, from our oral history, passed on through generations, will be passed onto Benji. I want Benji to know that as a person of Anishinaabe descent, he is a part of a family that has thousands of years of connection to this land. His family, and an entire community knows him, accepts him as their own. It is a bond that if tested cannot be broken. It is a bond that is as old as the wind itself.

Benji will know that he can survive on this land just as his ancestors did. I will teach him to walk on the land with respect and a reverence for all of the other living things around him. Those that crawl, those that swim, those that fly, and the hoofed spirits who walk on all fours. He will know that each of these possess a medicine and that their lives are as sacred as ours. He will know that he will only take what he needs for his existence and to give thanks to the creator for all that we Anishinaabeg were given.

Benji will understand his Anishinaabe ways of living. He will understand the teachings, the traditions and ties to the land from countless generations. He will understand family. He will understand place. And through all of this he will belong here, regardless of the Indian Act.

Jeff Monague is a former Chief of the Beausoleil First Nation on Christian Island, former Treaty Research Director with the Anishnabek (Union of Ontario Indians), and veteran of the Canadian Forces. Monague, who taught the Ojibwe language with the Simcoe County District School Board and Georgian College, is currently the manager of Springwater Provincial Park. His column appears regularly.