Young woman heads band council boasting six new faces
M’CHIGEENG — The September 12 band elections in M’Chigeeng seemed set as a passing of the torch to a new generation of Anishinaabe leaders, and with the election of former band councillor Linda Debassige, the youngest ever to be elected to that post on a Manitoulin or North Shore band council, and only the second woman to hold the position of chief in that community, that prediction was borne out when the ballots were finally tallied.
“I am very honoured and humbled by the community in their decision,” said Chief Debassige, who spent her first hours in the position “speaking with affiliates” and making preparations to assume the responsibilities of her new role.
“I guess it is kind of historical,” admitted Chief Debassige of her election as one of the youngest chiefs in Manitoulin history, but she pointed out that age is not such a traditional concept for the Anishinaabe. “I think there has to be a balance between experience and a respect for the past and looking forward to the future.”
Chief Debassige said that her knowledge of her community’s history was taught to her within her own family, not within the school curriculum growing up. “In the 80s our community history was not at the forefront of the curriculum. I was taught within my family and was lucky enough to have that continuity passed on to me.”
Chief Debassige, who is a civil engineer by trade, will be focussing nearly all of her attention on her new job as chief. “I am like that, when I take something on I focus on doing it to the best of my ability,” she said. But there is one notable and important exception. She will still be working as a civil engineer in the forestry industry, working on the occasional weekend marking trees, albeit maintaining her hand in at her occupation is not the driving factor in that decision.
“The bush is where I stay connected to the land,” she noted. “When I get away and am surrounded by the trees, my cell phone off, I can put things into perspective and keep my relationship and connection to the land.”
The new chief has a tremendous bond with the land and her community. When she first graduated from college she was offered numerous opportunities, some of them with six-figure paycheques attached, but she eschewed those offers and was drawn back to her community.
“It is a responsibility,” she said, trying to put into words what influenced that decision. “That is the best way I can describe it. I feel a responsibility to my community. It isn’t something I could turn my back on.”
Chief Debassige was headed to a medical appointment in Sault Ste. Marie when she stopped in to chat with The Expositor on Monday. Her first meeting with the new council, an orientation session, is tentatively slated for September 22 or 29. The first council meeting is traditionally held on the first Tuesday in October, in this case October 6.
Before that, the newly elected chief will be meeting with her predecessor, Chief Joe Hare, who elected to not run in this election. “He is going to brief me on where he left off on the projects that he has been working on and his involvement in those projects.”
Following the announcement of her election, Chief Debassige joined her electoral opponent G’Mewin Migwans in hosting a community potluck dinner and celebration. A symbolic declaration of unity and looking forward with the common goal of the betterment of their community. Chief Debassige had nothing but praise for Ms. Migwans and her approach to the campaign. “I never heard a negative word spoken by her,” said Chief Debassige.
As Chief Debassige replaces Chief Hare at the head of the M’Chigeeng First Nation band council table, there also is a kind of symbolic balance in that exchange, as Chief Hare is the longest serving chief of that community. Chief Hare has served as both deputy grand chief and grand council chief of the Anishinabek Nation (Union of Ontario Indians). Chief Hare’s many accomplishments include key roles in the formation of several training programs and institutions among them the Aboriginal Skills and Employment Training Strategy, the successor program to the Aboriginal Human Resources Development Strategy; and was instrumental in the formation of Kenjgewin Teg Education Institute, located on the M’Chigeeng First Nation. Chief Hare set his community on the road to investments in energy production, he has recently exhorted future chiefs and councils continue to explore economic opportunities along that path.
For her part, Chief Debassige has said that she intends to work for the benefit of her community as a whole. “The organizational chart of M’Chigeeng First Nation has at its top the community members,” she said. “That is something that I intend to remember as long as I am honoured with this role in our community. The membership are at the top.”