Zhiibaahaasing First Nation honours chief’s 20-year mark by forgiving mortgage obligation

ZHIIBAAHAASING—When Chief Irene Kells saw the big tent being set up in the centre of Zhiibaahaasing First Nation last week—right across from the band office, in fact—she took everyone’s word that it was for a planned youth conference on Saturday.

Surprise! When Chief Kells showed up at the “youth conference” on schedule at 3 pm, she learned in a hurry that the tent was there to house a party celebrating her 20 years’ service as chief.

Zhiibaahaasing is a tiny community that shares a road (and many family connections) with neighbouring Sheshegwaning First Nation as both communities share a mutual entrance and exit to Highway 540 just west of Silver Water.

It was nothing short of amazing that the whole community, plus all the invited guests from all over Manitoulin had kept Chief Kells’ party a secret for several weeks.

But the secret was kept and the party came as a complete surprise to the area’s longest-serving chief.

In his comments, Union of Ontario Indians (UOI) Grand Chief Pat Madahbee commented on the strength of leadership Chief Kells has brought to the community, and which he was certain she would continue to bring.

Peter (Benji) Nahwegahbow, representing Aundek Omni Kaning chief and council, recalled how the present-day built-up area of Zhiibaahaasing First Nation was all bush when a work crew from AOK helped clear the land for building over 20 years ago.

Zhiibaahaasing First Nation has its origins in Cockburn Island First Nation and the community still owns the original reserve property on Cockburn Island. In fact, according to Chief Kells, the community soon hopes to develop a community camping facility in the historic original territory on Cockburn Island.

While the Cockburn Island/Zhiibaahaasing community has existed in fact for nearly two centuries, it wasn’t until just over 20 years ago that the band decided in earnest to build an accessible community on Manitoulin Island proper, on the North Channel and adjacent to Sheshegwaning First Nation.

It was this mammoth task that Chief Kells was lauded for at her party last weekend as she took the chief’s position in the earliest days of the decision to build a new community and, in the intervening 20 years, has overseen the systematic construction of a ring of tidy, well-maintained homes, a band office and three of Manitoulin’s iconic tourist attractions: the world’s largest peace pipe, dream catcher and hand drum.

But more importantly, notes Zhiibaahaasing senior band councilor Kevin Mossip, the community is growing and now boasts nearly 25 children, whose active presence was very much in evidence during Chief Kells well-organized party.

Chief Kells was amazed at how well the party’s secret had been kept. “I couldn’t get to the youth gathering at Sheguiandah Frist Nation last spring,” she laughed, “so I was really looking forward to coming to one in our own community.”

Band staff spoke about how they’d felt badly about lying to the chief to preserve the surprise and many band members spoke appreciatively about Chief Kells and her accomplishments that have given them a home community.

Community members from Zhiibaahaasing and other first nations lined up to present Chief Kells with gifts of appreciation for her 20 years in office and master of ceremonies Kevin Mossip hinted that she and her husband Bob might well surprised by the final gift.

He was right.

The last gift was the cancellation of the mortgage on the Kells’ family home and lot at 19 Sagon Drive in Zhiibaahaasing First Nation.

Mr. Mossip said the council had heard Chief Kells say in the spring that she “would probably be dead before the mortgage was paid off” and so the council, with the community’s support, decided to do something about that.

Mr. Mossip had the necessary paperwork to accomplish this at the head table and explained that writing off the Kells’ mortgage required the signatures of all band councilors, plus one community elder, on the appropriate band council resolution.

One by one band councilors Bobbi-Sue Kells, Christine Sagon and Kevin Mossip publicly signed the document, as did community elder Bill Antoine and the paid-up deed to their property was formally passed over to Chief Irene Kells and her husband Bob.

It was an unusual tribute and a very moving one as Chief Kells, her husband Bob and members of the band council posed for photos of the Kells with the “paid-in-full” deed to their home to loud community applause.

Chief Kells responded to the tribute by promising “to run again” in the next election, as long as her health remains strong.