M’CHIGEENG—Eagle staffs from communities across Manitoulin Island gathered in front of the M’Chigeeng band office in a show of support for a rally organized by the M’Chigeeng First Nation that focused on the recent acts of violence that erupted at Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS) involving Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Following a brief prayer by Sheguiandah elder Gordon Waindubence, the assembly processed to the high school led by a truck bearing the M’Chigeeng community drum, with chiefs and staff carriers following just behind.
Once at MSS, the assembly gathered in front of the main entrance doors where the eagle staffs lined up.
M’Chigeeng Ogimaa Linda Debassige thanked everyone for coming out to show their support and acknowledged the eagle staff, the drum, elders and community leaders who joined with members of Island Anishinaabe communities and allies at the rally.
“We have come together here on the ancestral land of M’chigeeng First Nation, land on which MSS is built upon,” said Chief Debassige. “We are here because there has been again recent acts of violence perpetuated at this school involving Indigenous and non-Indigenous students that have racial undertones. We stand as our ancestors did before us, together, strong and united. We do not want the current situation of violence used to shift the blame on Indigenous people and disregard the systemic racism that continues to exist within the structures of Rainbow District School Board.”
Ogimaa Debassige noted that “this is a situation that must be acknowledged and tackled head on or it will keep reoccurring as we have seen and experienced over the last few decades. Our Anishinaabe children deserve more. Our children deserve quality education that supports and incorporates Anishinaabe views, ideology, history and curriculum complete with a supported sense of belonging and safe space for learning.”
Ogimaa Debassige noted that “First Nations contribute millions of dollars to the education of children within the RDSB system with the belief and trust that our students will receive quality education. We feel betrayed not only at the continued lack of concern for student safety and success, but at the institutionalized failure of the RDSB to address the issue of long standing systemic racism. In the spirit of reconciliation, and for the benefit of all students, we call on the RDSB to accept responsibility of this failure and to issue a direct apology for the legacy it has maintained.”
Ogimaa Debassige went on to call upon the RDSB to commit to systemic changes, including the immediate development and implementation of an anti-racism strategy; full implementation and adequate resourcing the Truth and Reconciliation Committee recommendations in full and direct consultation with First Nation chiefs and councils; increased Indigenous representation at the board level; mandatory cultural sensitivity training for all staff throughout the RDSB schools and administration offices; and increased full-time Indigenous teaching staff.
“We as Anishinaabe people will continue to move the yard stick forward for the benefit of our children now and for our future generations,” concluded Ogimaa Debassige. “Today we turn reconciliation into reconcili-action.”
Anishinaabek Nation Grand Council Chief Glen Debassige reiterated Ogimaa Debassige’s point that the First Nations pour millions of dollars into the RDSB coffers and noted that board representation falls far short with only one First Nation trustee sitting on the board to represent the 13 communities whose students attend RDSB schools.
Grand Council Chief Hare opened his talk in Ojibwe before switching to English to note that the Anishinabek Nation now has its own school board (M’Chigeeng and Wiikwemkoong are not members, but other Island First Nations are) and suggested that the time may have come for Island First Nations to build their own high school.
“We are gathered here for very awful reasons,” said Grand Council Chief Hare, who noted that his grandchildren attend MSS. “I know something happened before the charges were laid. Why was not the whole story told before it went out? This wasn’t even started by Anishinabe kids, but our children are paying the price.”
Grand Council Chief Hare called for two First Nation representatives on the RDSB.
“Whoever has the power to make things happen, I hope they say ‘okay chief,’ ‘lets sit down’,” he said. “It’s unbelievable that racism is still here. I was here in 1969 when I attended here for a few short months.” Grand Council Chief Hare noted that he had run away from the school with three friends.
“As we move forward, let’s not single any one of us out,” he said. “We have options. Wiikwemkoong has a high school, we can build a high school. We have our own education act, maybe it’s time to put that in high gear. The message is, ‘sit down with our chief, she is opening up. Give yourselves an opportunity to fix things—RDSB you are out of control’. We need to fix that.”
Zhiibaahaasing Ogimaa Irene Kells related how her own family member who is in his first year attending the school wanted to know if it was safe, because he did not feel safe. “I did not know how to answer him,” she said. “This is our school, along with everyone else. We need to feel safe.”
Ogimaa Kells noted that she also felt representation at the board falls short. She said she believes that every community should have a member on the RDSB. “Not just one.”
She also suggested that the First Nation children should attend a camp on Cockburn Island with the elders where they would receive their education. “We can get a lot more respect and education that way,” she said. “Maybe that is where we need to go—respect our children.”
Whitefish River Chief Shining Turtle was at the rally in a show of support for the Island communities, noting that his community faced similar issues last year at Espanola High School. When a fight broke out there, only the Native students were charged. Ogimaa Shining Turtle noted that his band stepped up to defend their children in the courts. “When we met with the leadership of the school, they would not bring up racism; they said it was violence,” he said. “There are messages from that. We have to conform.”
“I am led to believe that pole is a pole of peace,” he said, referencing the peace pole that stands outside MSS. “We have to live by the words, we cannot just put up objects like this peace pole and think that everything is fine. But we have to put up our peace pole and then walk in and confirm.”
Ogimaa Shining Turtle noted that the issues last year are still not resolved. “They are swept under the rug. What does that breed? Hopelessness.”
“We need to have a conversation and that conversation has to be the truth,” he said. “We need a task force, let’s talk about this. Let’s start here on Manitoulin. When you look at an institution like this, there should be hope. It stands in our own hands to take action. Let’s begin the conversation to make this racism issue disappear, when are we prepared to do that?”
Wiikwemkoong Ogimaa Duke Peltier, whose community has its own high school, said that he had been invited to show support and unity. “We have gone through generations, and generations, and generations of this kind of behaviour expressed towards our children,” he said. “It is nice to see so many of you here that want to see some action—want to see good things happen for our children.”
Ogimaa Peltier recalled the racism he met while playing hockey for the University of Saskatchewan as an example of how quickly things can happen. Faced with taunts on the ice while on a road trip to play the University of Manitoba, his own teammates lodged a complaint over the treatment of the one Anishinaabe player on their team. “Because of relationships that were forged with my teammates, they spoke up,” he said. An investigation immediately took place and the facts are determined. Asked what form of retribution or punishment he felt the opposing players should face, the young Mr. Peltier suggested that the Manitoba players should have to do community service work in downtown Winnipeg. Getting to that resolution took three days. “I hope the calls to action by Ogimaa Debassige will be acted upon and acted upon swiftly,” he said.
Former Grand Council Chief Pat Madahbee spoke on behalf of Aundeck Omni Kaning Chief Patsy Corbiere, who was attending to health issues of a member of her community that could not be delegated. He urged the chiefs to use the leverage of the dollars they pump into the RDSB to drive changes. “Otherwise they will string you along like they did Ogimaa Shining Turtle,” he said. “We have 49 years of this without anything being resolved. The only thing they listen to is money.”
First Nation RDSB trustee Grace Fox then addressed the crowd. “The work of a trustee conforms to the Education Act,” she said. “You are given your orders as to how to behave, what to say, where to be. As an Anishinabe kwe it has hard to be an Anishinabe kwe within a corporation.”
Ms. Fox noted that the excuses she always hears is that there is no funding. “We have now have TRC, with only one trustee. It is good that the RDSB has decided to implement the recommendations, but we have been unable to set up the advisory committee. We have meetings four times a year, for four hours, 16 hours we meet to represent the total population.”
Trustee Fox gave a shout out to Manitoulin trustee Larry Killens. “I am glad you are filming this Larry,” she said. “You can take it back to the board.”
Trustee Fox spoke of her disappointment in the number of First Nation students she sees graduate each year, “the number that I see receiving rewards, when I know how many students there are attending the school.”
MSS student Pierre Debassige, Ogimaa Debassige’s son spoke on his dismay on the way Anishinabe culture, traditions and history are taught in the school system and his own disappointment that more of his fellow students were not outside attending the rally with him.
Mr. Debassige recalled his one appearance at an RDSB meeting, where he spoke about racism. “I wasn’t invited back,” he said.
“I guarantee that every one of the aboriginal students who attend here experience racism,” he said. “Why aren’t they out here? I want to say miigwetch to all of the people who are here today to support the students.”
Elder Marie Eshkibok of Wiikwemkoong spoke at length about the teachings of the Medewin Lodge and advised the group to “go after your own high school.”
Although Ogimaa Debassige expressed regret at the beginning of the rally that MSS principal Jamie Mohamed was not in attendance, Mr. Mohamed came out shortly thereafter, but was not invited to speak. He explained following the rally that he was unable to come out immediately as he was on the phone dealing with an administrative matter, but that he expressed that was glad that he had been there to hear what those rallying had to say.