by Michael Erskine
“I have always had a strong compulsion to help the people of this reserve, both from a traditional medicine perspective and politically, as chief,” Ron declared in a 2008 edition of The Expositor feature column Now and Then, authored by Petra Wall. “My father was chief for 19 years. His commitment to the people and to their welfare was passed on to me.”
Those who knew the former councillor and chief of Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve attest to the simple honesty embodied in those words-they were not a boast, they were a simple statement of fact.
The writer’s first interaction with Chief Wakegijig was during that worthy gentleman’s last tenure as chief. Arriving announced at his office, I was informed that he had decamped to the Wikwemikong Health Centre. Arriving at the health centre I was informed that he had just left for the Wikwemikong Nursing Home, then on to one of the schools before arriving once more at the Wikwemikong band offices. I finally caught up with Chief Wakegijig as he sat behind his desk, relaxed, reading a copy of the Toronto Star. “Well, I guess I am going to have to talk to you,” he said, and my imagination was probably responsible for that twinkle that seemed to sparkle in his eye as he set the paper aside and leaned forward on his desk. The interview proceeded and I discovered a man with a keen insight into the politics and business of First Nations communities, a man possessed of a quiet confidence and determination-with a practical approach that could easily be mistaken for cynicism, were it not so firmly grounded in experience.
My tour of the facilities in the community of Wikwemikong had a practical side. “He probably felt you needed to get to know the community first,” laughed lifelong friend and colleague Albert (Hardy) Peltier.
There is no mistaking the emotion in Mr. Peltier’s voice as he talks about his friend. “I am so proud I have been associated with Ron all these years,” he said. “I came from a poor family, and he set a lot of examples for me.”
Mr. Peltier’s and Mr. Wakegijig’s fathers were fast friends, said Mr. Peltier, and that friendship continued on into the next generation with he and Ron. Mr. Peltier noted that his friend’s political style was of a gentle but effective sort. “He was never a pusher,” he said. “He listened to the people and he did what was needed.” And he did it by building community concensus.
“I can’t remember any big squabbles while he was in,” said Mr. Peltier. “I guess he learned that from his father. He kept things on the right path.”
The elder Mr. Wakegijig, a World War II veteran, was chief of Wikwemikong until his untimely death in an automobile accident along with three other councillors in 1971. That tragedy marked a turning point in the younger Wakegijig’s life, already a councillor in his own right, as the following year Ron Wakegijig was elected to the first of his seven terms as chief––his own period as chief spanned over 18 years. Mr. Wakegijig himself cited his father as his role model as a politician.
It was a career which saw Wikwemikong grow from a sleepy little hamlet of 2,400 souls to the thriving centre which now boasts as many as 7,000 according to Mr. Peltier. “It’s like a big city up there now,” said Mr. Peltier. “Someone joked years ago that there would soon be a multiplex three stories high. Ronnie didn’t bat an eye when he agreed with him. Now look at it. Some accomplishments you can’t set your eyes on, but there are things that you can see-so many.”
The list of those accomplishments goes on for some time. A health centre, the nursing home, the band offices and police offices and Rainbow Lodge, a healing lodge to treat alcoholism. He also created the first mental health program for First Nations youth in the province.
There were also community centres, buildings for the Elders in the community to gather and do their crafts and many, many homes for those living in the community and those wishing to return.
The water tower which stands sentinel above the new subdivisions of homes in Wikwemikong may mark the last of the political term goals of Chief Wakegijig while he was in office, but not the last of his dreams and goals which are still moving forward. Those remain for the younger hands which he inspired to complete, said Mr. Peltier.
“Ron’s death represents a tremendous loss for his family, his community, and the Anishinabek Nation,” said Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee in a statement. “When I first got involved in politics I sought him out for advice and have regarded him as a mentor for over 40 years. He was the greatest leader I knew on the First Nations political scene in Canada.”
Mr. Peltier noted that his friend was a tireless proponent of culture and traditional medicines, seeking to meld them into a comfortable alliance with their western counterparts. One of Chief Wakegijig’s daughters went on to become a doctor in the western tradition, while he dedicated much of his own life to learning and preserving the traditional medicines.
His own journey with traditional herbalism and medicines began when he was encouraged to seek out Birch Island traditional healer John Paul.
“He was like a brother to me,” said Dr. Jack Bailey, one of Chief Wakegijig’s colleagues and co-conspirators in bringing traditional medicines into comfortable co-existance with western medicines. “I have always valued that relationship very highly. We respect each other-we always have.”
Together Chief Wakjegijig and Dr. Bailey helped to design and bring about the medicine lodge in the Wikwemikong Health Centre, and through their example, the Mshkikii-Gamig Medicine Lodge at the Sudbury General Hospital came to fruition. Their working relationship laid the foundations for the integration of the two approaches to improving health standards in Wikwemikong and had repercussions which reached far beyond it’s borders.
First thrown together for an extended period of time when Dr. Bailey was asked by the Wikwemikong band that was building a new health centre to travel to Tuscon, Arizona to learn more about traditional approaches to healing, the pair grew into a close working relationship through innumerable subsequent journeys to give presentations in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Edmonton, as well as communities much closer, such as Sudbury.
“He was tireless in his travels to different Aboriginal communities across Canada (to promote Native culture and medicines,” said Mr. Peltier. “It was wonderful to see him honoured in so many different communities.”
Dr. Bailey also referred to Chief Wakegijig’s style with amazingly similar words to those used by others to describe his style. “He never pushed me,” said Dr. Bailey. “But (whatever it was he wanted to happen) the subject had a way of coming up. And he got things done.”
The passion his colleague had for his culture and traditions became a source of great admiration for Dr. Bailey, and the efficacy of that passion came through with solid results. “At that time, everything to do with the delivery of medical services in Wikwemikong was controlled by people at the Department of Indian Affairs,” he said. “Ron felt it should be controlled by by the Wikwemikong First Nation.” In the end, the health centre was built, and it included the medicine lodge envisioned by the community. “That’s just the way it was,” said Dr. Bailey.
“Of course I think of Ron during his time as chief,” said Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Mike Brown, who was traveling from his Queen’s Park office to attend Chief Wakegijig’s funeral. “But I also think about his work as a healer. He was a person who brought the vast store of traditional Native learning and healing to the fore.”
Chief Wakegijig was also a musician of some talent, and Mr. Peltier recalled the day the Don Messer Show came to town and the their band was asked to perform. “What is the name of your band?” asked the great late Marg Osborne, the indomitable matriarchal singer on the show. “We didn’t have one,” recalled Mr. Peltier. “We told her we were the Wiky Wacky Wingdings. She told us to change it.”
The silly impromptu moniker didn’t last long after that. The Odawas were one of the first bar bands formed in the area. “It’s been a lot of fun,” said Mr. Peltier. “That name still exists to this day.”
Not only did the band perform outside the community, but music was an integral part of many celebrations over the years. “We have a celebration of the seasons, the solstices they call them, and we get the community together for a big banquet with music,” said Mr. Peltier. “Ron was also a very big supporter of the veterans, and every year around November 11 there would be a big banquet to honour the veterans with music entertainment.”
Chief Wakegijig was intensely proud of his family, and his children have gone on to careers spanning the continent-a number of them working in the medical and educational fields.
Ron Wakegijig’s contributions to his community, the province and the nation were recognized in May of this year by the awarding of the Anishinabek Nation Lifetime Achievement Award and later, the Order of Ontario was bestowed upon him by a grateful provincial government for his outstanding service to the Anishinaabek to Ontario and to Canada.