WIIKWEMKOONG – Many of the milestones that have passed over the past year-and-a-half would have been recognized by large gatherings of celebration, but were forced to move online due to COVID-19. The digital venue did not deter nearly 100 attendees of the 30th Kina Gbezhgomi Child and Family Services annual general meeting, however, as board members, staff and parents gathered to mark the organization’s transition 30 years ago from an ad hoc grassroots group of concerned parents and teachers into a major force in the care and protection of Indigenous youth and families.
The meeting was opened by Kina Gbezhgomi Child and Family Services chair Kevin Mossip who introduced the 86 attendees before turning the microphone over to elder Gerry Kaboni for an opening benediction in Anishinabemowin. Drum group Down to Earth then provided a welcoming song.
One of the founders of Kina Gbezhgomi Child and Family Services, elder and retired educator Marion Pitawanakwat recalled the beginnings of the organization and provided a window into what the world was like for Anishinaabe in the early ‘60s when she began her career.
“In 1962 the Indian agent approved me to supply teach,” she recalled. She spoke of her mother, who owned a store at the time and was one of the few employers available in Wiikwemkoong. Her mother would send some of the women who came seeking employment to Ms. Pitawanakwat. “I would write a note for them for what they needed from the store,” she said. It was usually Klik and bread. Ms. Pitawanakwat spoke of how the women coming to her were terrified that their children would be taken away from them. This was the time of the infamous ‘60s Scoop.
“The teachers in the provincial schools were always watching the Native kids,” she said. If the children came to school without a proper lunch or their clothes not clean and tidy, a visit from the child protection agency, Sudbury Family Alliance, would soon follow and the children whisked away, almost certainly to a white foster home. “Very few people in the community had jobs back then,” she said. “Many of the men only had seasonal jobs.”
Ms. Pitawanakwat recalled how, when a non-Native person would come into her classroom, the children would cower beneath her desk. “They had been taught to fear white people, they were always told to hide when they saw white people,” she recalled. Their terror was so real that she would not make the children come out until the white individual had left. That terror was not unfounded.
“When the truant officer from Indian Affairs would come to the school, they were not interested in anything other than the registry book,” she said. If a child had missed too many days for being sick, notes were taken and soon after the children would be seized from the home.
Ms. Pitawanakwat went on to teacher’s college in 1974 and began teaching full-time. In 1975 she was promoted to principal.
She became involved in the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre at Anderson Lake (just outside Espanola). She recalled how the women would cook for the workers constructing the centre. “That was when I met women from other reserves, places like Cutler, Sagamok and Birch Island and other Island people—especially from Wiikwemkoong.”
In talking to women from other communities, Ms. Pitawanakwat soon learned that she was not alone in what she was seeing in child care and protection services.
“All of the women whose children were in the provincial schools were afraid of losing their children,” she recalled. “We got together and formed a committee. Leona Nahwegahbow was one of the women, she was teaching Kindergarten at the time. We decided we couldn’t keep losing our children like this.”
The group eventually became a formal institution, filing as a non-profit so that they could access funding sources. “We found we could get funding from INAC (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada),” she said. Despite some initial cynicism, the group was delighted when they heard the news. “We got it!” said Ms. Pitawanakwat.
That was just the start of the long battle for recognition and support.
“We asked the chiefs to come to a meeting,” she said. The initial meeting at the high school saw only two chiefs come. “Leona mentioned that maybe we should reach out to the Grand Chief of the Union of Ontario Indians (now the Anishinabek Nation).” With the grand chief on their side, the next meeting saw a much greater take-up. (That grand chief, she noted, went on to pass the bar exam and become a lawyer.) “We were his first job,” she laughed. “To this day I don’t know if we paid him enough.”
From there things took off, with the United Chiefs and Councils of Mnidoo Mnising later taking over the helm. Despite that support it still took many years before Kina secured the role of child protection agency for Northern Indigenous communities.
Receiving recognition for five years of service were Ginger Radey, Heather Corbiere, John Ferguson, Kendra Makitalo, Kora-Lyn Paulin, Mike McCormick, Wendy Debassige, Shanah Pitawanakwat, Dawna Lee Chartrand and Anita McGregor-Aelick.
Receiving recognition for 10 years of service were Denise Morrow, Scott Madahbee and Miranda Corbiere.
Retiring board member Maureen (Tish) Manitowabi was recognized for her 15 years of service to the organization and singled out for special acknowledgement.
“Chi-miigwetch for letting me be with the board,” said Ms. Manitowabi in an emotional farewell. “It was hard,” she said of the challenges that were faced, but added she was “glad we supported each other.”
Whitefish River First Nation elder Leona Nahwegahbow was recognized for her years of service as a board member, since 1989, and the key role she played in ensuring the success of the organization and ongoing support. Mr. Mossip was cited for his 11 years as board chair and his key role in governance support.
The new community representative board members for Kina Gbezhgomi Child and Family Services are Ogimaa-kwe Patsy Corbiere for Aundeck Omni Kaning, Ogimaa-kwe Linda Debassige for M’Chigeeng, Chief Andrew Aguonie for Sheguiandah, Chief Dean Roy for Sheshegwaning, Chief Shining Turtle for Whitefish River, acting Chief Tom Ominika for Wiikwemkoong and Chief Irene Kells for Zhiibaahaasing.
The closing song was offered by Thunder Earth Drum Group.