To sell far-north Indians on celebrating the Centennial, Robert Garrison bush-hopped 3,500 miles. Here’s how he sold the idea of “a big time next summer”

Robert Garrison March 1 1967


To sell far-north Indians on celebrating the Centennial, Robert Garrison bush-hopped 3,500 miles. Here’s how he sold the idea of “a big time next summer”

Robert Garrison March 1 1967


To sell far-north Indians on celebrating the Centennial, Robert Garrison bush-hopped 3,500 miles. Here’s how he sold the idea of “a big time next summer”

Robert Garrison

OUR FLOAT PLANE splashed down on the surface of the Albany River delta, in mid-September already fringed by a film of ice. As we taxied to the dock, the tent-and-shack village of Fort Albany looked quite deserted, and those little qualms that had nagged me since I left Toronto seemed to be justified: without advance notice, we might find the far-north Indian villages empty of hunters and trappers, and there would be nobody in authority to get the message of the program that the Centennial Planning Branch of the Ontario government was planning for Indian communities.

I remembered what Cam Currie, a former Hudson's Bay factor who advises government departments on Indian affairs, had told me: “If a place seems deserted, just ring the church bell and they'll show up. After a while your trip will get on the ‘moccasin telegraph' and you'll be expected everywhere.”

But before I could go looking for a church bell, we heard hammering along the shore and found a middleaged Indian repairing a dock. He said that his name was Moses Nakagee and he was a village councillor. He told us that the chief and most of the men were away “because the geese arc Hying,” and those who weren’t guiding visiting hunters were shooting their own winter larder of snows and blues.

Even with an audience of only one, we decided to try out my speech about how the government wanted to help the Indians celebrate the Centennial. Moses led us to a nearby tool shed. I presented him with a Centennial flag which he clutched to his chest as he listened to Tom Archibald, my interpreter, explain our mission in the rolling music that is. the Cree language. At intervals Moses nodded and said, “Ayhah, ay hah!”

“He thinks it's a good idea,” Archibald told me. We gave him additional flags for the chief and councillors when they returned from the goose hunt, and a couple of handfuls of lapel pins for the populace (do fur parkas have lapels?). We told Moses Nakagee that we’d be in touch later, and took off for Attawapiskat, 60 miles northward.

The 3,500-mile trip that started so inauspiciously was part of my assignment as a Centennial project officer. Most of the reservations in the settled parts ot Ontario were easy to reach by road, mail and telephone, and in general the Indian leaders went along more or less good-humoredly with the

white-men’s suggestions. (Samples: “Story-telling around an old object: e.p., loading a flintlock.” “Nail-driving contests.” “Choosing and honoring an outstanding citizen from present or past, such as best guide, cook, craftsman, etc." “Community cookout of traditional Indian foods such as fish, soup or game.”)

But one group of Indians remained unreached: the 20-odd bands of Crees and Ojibwas who inhabit the vast rugged sub-Arctic hinterland of Hudson Bay in northwestern Ontario between the Quebec and Manitoba borders.

"No use writing to them." advised Dr. Edward Rogers, a Royal Ontario Museum anthropologist who has worked in the area. “Few of them read English. and by the time they get around to having your message translated into Cree, and decide to answer, it could be a year.”

So there was only one way to get the Centennial message to such settlements as Fort Albany, Attawapiskat, Pikangikum, Wunnummin. Webique and Kasabonaka: take it to them.

Into a plane rented from the Department of Lands and Forests, piloted by AI McCleod, who knew the area well, I had loaded a variety of Centennial bait: a couple of thousand Centennial lapel pins, dozens of Centennial flags mounted on desk stands (where do you stand a desk flag in a tent?), plus films, projector, screen and generator borrowed from the National Film Board. The films had nothing to do directly with the Centennial. The idea was to attract the Indians to an entertainment, after which 1 would deliver the Centennial spiel.

Or rather, Tom Archibald would deliver his Cree or Ojibwa version of my speeches. I had sent Archibald the speeches and suggested programs to translate into Cree, and we picked him up in Moosonee, his home base. Archibald turned out to be a stocky, 45-year-old Cree of infinite resource. He was on loan to the Centennial project from the Indian Development Branch of the Ontario Welfare Department as an interpreter, but he turned out to be much more than that — chief spokesman, public-relations man and cook.

Tom Archibald had only one reservation about making the 3,500-mile circuit of the badlands with us: the fear of being weathered in and not being able to keep a forthcoming goose - calling engagement with a group of goose hunters down in Maryland, at $ 100 a week and all expenses paid. He modestly admitted a reputation for being able to emit a goose call that seemed irresistible to ganders.

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In Cree, Centennial was “big time”

Our second stop was a pleasant surprise. Inlike deserted Fort Albany. Attawapiskat was swarming with people. Ah. I thought, the moccasin telegraph is beginning to work. But it turned out that the men had come in from their trap lines and goose blinds to attend a meeting with a visiting Indian Affairs official who proposed to relocate many of the hunters farther south, where fur and game were more plentiful

When the meeting was over, we "borrowed” the audience and explained our mission. T his consisted of my speaking for less than two minutes. aware that hardly a soul understood a word: "The whole of Canada is celebrating Confederation in 1967 and all Canadians are invited to join in. It is hoped that Indian culture and tradition will be taken advantage of to present dances, customs and powwows. Although Indian culture is distinctly different, it is all the same Canadian, and should play a major role in the marking of our anniversary. The Ontario Centennial Planning Branch wants to assist Indian celebrations where needed, in the form of goods and services, and not grants—for example, costumes, food, equipment, musicians, flags and so forth . . .”

Then Archibald took over and delivered a five-minute oration in Cree. I didn't hear him use the word "Centennial” or any recognizable translation of it. but he repeated two or three times a phrase I remembered hearing him use at Fort Albany: "Kitche moochipan mena nepin.”

That, Archibald told me later, was

his translation of "Centennial." in a form the Indians would quickly understand and appreciate. It means: "A big time next summer."

Chief George Kebokee and his councillors nodded, smiling approval as Archibald described the various possible celebrations the government would provide for. They smiled and nodded even more vigorously when he announced that we would hold a party in the mission hall that very night, with movies and refreshments, and the whole community w;as invited.

Archibald, pilot AI McCleod and 1 headed for the Hudson's Bay store to lay in supplies for the party. Our w'alk took us straight into the world of the Indian: black ribbons of seal meat hung drying as winter feed for the sled dogs. ("Indians would almost sooner starve than eat it." Tom Archibald remarked. "They consider seal fit only for dogs.“) Big geese hung upside down in clusters around every door. Caribou racks and polar-bear skins hung from a high tripod out of reach of the huskies and nondescript village dogs that roamed everywhere and sniffed noisily at our tracks. Women and girls giggled behind cabin curtains, snickered out of tent flaps, tittered in the shadow's.

We bought coffee, tea. sugar, evaporated milk, cookies and candies, and at party time the villagers filled the hall, 200 strong not counting numerous occupants of papoose hoards slung to mothers' backs, sound asleep and snugly embedded in diapers of moss. There was no mingling: women and children sat on the right, men on the left. Everyone remained heavily clothed, since the indoor temperature was only 25 degrees. Patiently they sat and waited for the entertainment.

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The Sun Dance to northern Indians: “Dig those crazy outfits”

First, my two minutes followed by Archibald’s five minutes of oratory proclaiming. “Kitche moochigan mena nepin,” which evoked happy nods and a chorus of “ayhahsWe presented Chief Kebokee with a Centennial flag, which he clutched authoritatively, and we passed out the coloriul plastic Centennial pins to everyone. (In fact, we passed out 300 pins to 200 people — every other person claimed “someone at home who couldn't come.”)

Then came the entertainment. Father Daigneault. the diminutive, bright-eyed mission priest at Attawapiskat, not only lent us his hall, but volunteered as movie projectionist. The audience took a professional interest in White Throat, which depicts the variety of wild life in Algonquin Park, far to the south. But they roared with laughter (who says Indians are impassive?) at the deadpan miming of Buster Keaton in The Railroddtr. Surprisingly, they found our third film even more hilarious. This was a depiction of the colorful ritualistic Sun Dance ceremony of Alberta's Blood Indians. Archibald told me later that the comment of the audience could be summarized as, “Dig those Indians in those crazy outfits doing those crazy dances.”

A small leap forward

Apparently the isolated far-north Indians never did develop the pomp and pageantry of the more southerly tribes. Later at Bearskin Lake when w'e offered to provide Indian costumes for a Centennial pageant, the elders told us, “Send us 20 moose hides and we'll make our own.”

The show over, it was time lor the refreshments. Several pails of boiling water were brought into the hall. Into some went a pound of instant coffee each: into others a double handful ot tea bags, followed by three pounds of sugar, two cans ol evaporated milk, and a vigorous stirring with sticks. Out came metal cups, plastic cups and tumblers, and off went the chili from the 25-degree air. Indian women, so bashful that they blushed visibly, handed around cookies. Tom Archibald and I distributed candies to milling. eager - fisted children, young enough to be uninhibited.

Later, in the Lands and Forests cabin where we spent the night. Archibald pronounced our first Centennial indoctrination meeting a solid success. It set the pattern for the rest of our 3,500-mile Centennial circuit of 15 Ontario communities, the very existence of which the rest of the province is all but unaware — part of Ontario where moose and whitefish arc the staples; other parts where geese and caribou arc the staff of life; areas where the lard-and-flour bannock carries families through February when no beaver, marten, lynx, otter or muskrat are moving in the frigid scrub forests to be trapped, skinned, and eaten.

In some of the places we visited the population is subsidized to the extent of 50 percent of their bare living

needs by welfare, family and widows' allowances, widows' and old-age pensions — and the anachronistic treaty payment of four dollars a year. Yet many of the northern Indians still have to work desperately hard to achieve a bare subsistence. Hunger is never far away.

When our plane landed at Webique

in early October, women rushed to the dock. They hoped that the plane was bringing their husbands back from a government tree - planting project. Time was growing short before the six-month winter closed in. and the community was almost out of firewood. which is almost as much a necessity of life as food and shelter.

Archibald, concerned about the problem. told me seriously. "To an Indian, fire is more than warmth. It is a companion. No Indian is ever lonely on his trap line if he can lie in his tent and look out at his fire.”

1 went to the north to do a publicrelations job for Centennial. I came out convinced that what 1 had seen was the end of an era. the beginning of — at least — a small leap forward.

I saw the first stages of the Department of Lands and Forests programs to develop guiding, commercial fishing. and trapping. Tourism in the form of moose, bear and goose hunting is increasing. Community-development officers are going in with ideas and programs. The Department of Indian Affairs is building schools and supplying teachers for the new generation. At l.ansdowne House. Father Ouimet helps them run an Indian co-operative store that is prospering. And Oscar l.indokken. a tur trader at Deer Fake who has devoted 30 years to the north, has made it possible with long-range credit and lots of faith for 90 percent of the community of trappers and fishermen to own snowmobiles and good boats and motors. In some places Northern Affairs has built sawmills where an Indian can take out. in sawn lumber, half the timber he brings in. Already, small cabins outnumber the earth-banked tents. Tuberculosis has been almost conquered, and the hospitals dotting the north now deal with more routine health problems such as dental cavities and bronchitis.

Indians are skeptical: the white man’s made promises before

For the benefit of anyone who thinks that Indians tend to be unenterprising, let me tell about the Indian girl who looks after the Lands and Forests cabin at Big Trout Lake, where w'e stayed one night. As a sideline, she makes and sells beaded moccasins and other handicrafts — at prices which w'ould make big-city stores blush. I wanted a pair of her moccasins, but she didn't have my

size. Next morning she showed up. red-eyed and weary, with moccasins of the right size. She had. she explained. stayed up all night to make them.

But hack to my Centennial mission. Although Tom Archibald had assured

me that it was a success, and that the Indians were interested, there seemed to be an attitude of skepticism underlying their "Ayluili, ayluili."

"Maybe," said Archibald, "but remember that many promises and schemes have been brought to them

over the years, things they have never heard of again. Now they believe when they see."

Well, at least one far - north community believes. The little community of Sachigo Lake lost no time after our visit in drawing up its Centennial program — games, handicraft exhibits by men and women, a guest speaker, a songfest, and above all a “town feast” for 161 people. The Sachigo Lake tribesmen have no intention. however, of serving our suggested "typical Indian foods." Here is the menu they have asked the Centennial Branch to supply: 40 pounds garlic sausage. 48 pounds each ordinary sausage and wieners, 100 loaves of bread. 10 dozen doughnuts, two cases each oranges and apples, three cases grapes. 50 pounds each butter, shortening and Christmas candy. 10 cans whole chicken. 24 cans each of Spork, peaches, and pears, 24 packages mashed potatoes, five pounds each of tea and instant coffee, 12 jars of Sunup. five 48-ounce cans of jam, 48 cans milk. 50 pounds of sugar, and tw'o pounds of salt.

If the other northern Indian villages enter into the Centennial spirit as wholeheartedly as Sachigo Lake, my mission will have succeeded beyond wildest dreams. But there's one little problem that someone else is going to have to cope with come 1968. Tom Archibald’s parting words were: “The Indians like the idea of celebrating the Centennial so much that they think the government should do it every year."

Which might be a very good idea, at that. ★