By Lynn Gehl
In the Anishinaabeg tradition dibaajimowinan, which translates to personal storytelling, is valued as a valid and legitimate method of both gaining and conveying knowledge. The dibaajimowinan method is holistic in that it values knowledge that is more than what is rational: it is emotional and spiritual too. As most know, the oral tradition was recognized in the 1997 Delgamuukw Supreme Court of Canada decision. Remaining within my ancestral knowledge tradition, it is in these ways of knowing that I offer this Algonquin Anishinaabeg history.
Most days, and especially Remembrance Day, are a bundle of contradictions as my lived experience is laden with the genocide by colonial Canada both historical and in a contemporary sense. Through family oral history I know that my great grandfather, Joseph Gagne (also spelled Gagnon), served in the First World War (1914-1918). I was told that his mother, who is my great great grandmother, Angeline Jocko (also spelled Jacco), once resided at a mission settlement in the Lake of Two Mountains which was first established in 1721.
The Lake of Two Mountains mission settlement was a place where the Algonquin, Nippissing, and Mohawk people lived together, each nation retaining their own council houses (Day and Trigger 1994). Through the oral tradition I know there is a wampum belt that represents this relationship. This belt has three human icons encoded, as well as a cross representing the three Indigenous nations and the community as a Christian settlement.[i]
Actually, I am fairly certain there were once three incarnations of this wampum belt. This makes both rational sense and traditional sense. In my learning process I have encountered a hint that a second incarnation of this belt is in the hands of the Haudenosaunee as a photograph of it appears in an Indigenous publication (see Tehanetorens 1972, page 71). While I have this hint as to where the second belt is, I do ponder what became of the third.
Through family oral history, as told to me by my kokomis (grandmother in Anishinaabemowin), Viola Gagne, I learned that Angeline spoke Mohawk, the subsequent assumption being that she was a Mohawk woman. Angeline’s national origins, though, are not essentially crucial to me because I know that Indigenous nations and community memberships were fluid entities in that we adopted, kidnapped, and assimilated new members as a governance practice. Like all nations, members of Indigenous communities were defined socially by members’ allegiances and practices rather than through genetic codes, blood quantum, or phenotype physiology such as hair, eye, and skin colour. Actually, I would stress further that genetic diversity was the rule as it assured that our blood remained clean and healthy. While Joseph Gagne’s mother was Indigenous, his father, also named Joseph, I was told, was a French man.
It was on September 12, 1910 in Eganville, Ontario when Joseph married Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe Annie Jane Menesse, the daughter of Mary Ann Bannerman and the adopted daughter of Frank Menesse. Joseph and Annie Jane settled at the Golden Lake Indian Reserve raising their five children: Viola, Celia, Gordon, Kenneth, and Steve. While it may be correct that the Golden Lake Indian Reserve once consisted of a diverse group of Indigenous people, today many people, such as myself, who are the descendants of the Golden Lake Indian Reserve, now called Pikwàkanagàn First Nation, identify as Algonquin Anishinaabeg. As stated, identity is foremost a social process.
Through my archival research I gained a copy of Joseph’s Attestation Papers dated May 12th, 1916. His last name in these papers is spelled “Gagnon”, and his birthdate is recorded as April 7th, 1890, thus he was 26 years old. They record that he was 5 feet and 7.25 inches tall, had brown eyes and brown hair with a medium complexion, and was a Roman Catholic. These records also state that both his mother and father were alive living in Calabogie, Ontario at the time of his enlistment, his next of kin being the obvious, his wife Annie Jane Gagnon.
From these records I also learned that Joseph was first enlisted in the 207th battalion, then transferred to the 2nd battalion, and that he served in Canada, England, and France. In addition, I learned his port of embarkation out of Canada was Halifax, on my grandmother’s sixth birthday, May 28, 1917. His port of disembarkation was Liverpool, England on June 10th, 1917 and he was demobilized on January 24th, 1919. He remained a private, service number 246266, for the duration of the war. Lastly, these records state that he received the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. Family oral history also informs me that he received two other medals: the Military Medal, and the Star Medal. I have never seen these medals and I am unsure where they ended up. The physical existence of these medals is not important to me. The feeling that the oral tradition evokes about them, which is of a dutiful, decorated soldier is real enough for me. Alternatively stated, I can feel my relationship to them and this relationship is real.
After the war ended Joseph returned to his home community, the Golden Lake Indian reserve, where shortly after, in the 1920s, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police escorted his family out of their community because Joseph’s Indigenous identity was borne by his mother’s ancestral line rather than his father’s. Annie Jane’s indigeneity was irrelevant because women, according to British law, were considered appendages of their fathers and husbands. This was a common practice imposed on Indigenous veterans and their families. When they came home from serving as the British Crown’s loyal allies, they lost all their treaty rights as Indigenous people. I know this through family oral history as well as my family’s impoverished lived experience. Indeed, Canada’s racist history is terrible and terribly felt.
Many people know that I have been involved in a lifelong effort to gain Indian status registration. While I have been working on this effort for almost 30 years, this has really been a collective intergenerational effort. It was in 1945 when Annie sent a letter to Indian Affairs asking if she was considered to be an Indian where shortly after she was told that due to her marriage to a man who was a white man – the same “white man” who had enlisted from his Golden Lake home as an Indigenous man – she “became a white woman.” I hold a copy of this letter today.
While the Algonquin Anishinaabeg are the traditional land holders of the Ottawa River Valley, through colonial policies and laws many of us were denied the right to pass on to our families our national identity and our rights as Indigenous people, such as the right to own land and resources and as such the right to live a good life (pimadiziwin). Rather, many were stripped of their national identity, and many others were relegated to living in reserve communities until we could prove we met the British criteria of what it meant to be civilized (see Miller 2004; and Milloy 1991). The reason for this was that British Canada did not view the Algonquin as real people, but rather as pre-human savages without legitimate identity, culture, and as such governance traditions, where consequently we also lacked a valid holding on the land (see Williams 2012). In concrete terms the legacy of these colonial policies and laws also manifest in the intergenerational transfer of settler land holdings in the form of what is willed to the children and grandchildren of settler families. The short story is that many settler families continue to benefit from Indigenous land and rights denial. Settler Canadians, it is in these ways that my great-grandfather went to war for your rights, not mine.
When I reflect on this reality I am saddened that Joseph Gagnon fought for a country that took so much away from his family: his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. As Indigenous people of this land my ancestors deserved the right and responsibility to care for their children and provide for them pimadiziwin.
This is my story. Remembering should not be this hard.
Lynn Gehl, Ph.D, is an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from the Ottawa River Valley. She has a section 15 Charter challenge regarding the continued sex discrimination in The Indian Act, and is an outspoken critic of the Ontario Algonquin land claims and self-government process. She has three books: Anishinaabeg Stories: Featuring Petroglyphs, Petrographs, and Wampum Belts, The Truth that Wampum Tells: My Debwewin of the Algonquin Land Claims Process, and Mkadengwe: Sharing Canada’s Colonial Process through Black Face Methodology. You can reach her at email@example.com and see more of her work at www.lynngehl.com.
ActiveHistory.ca is featuring this post as part of “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on ActiveHistory.ca”, a multi-year series of regular posts about the history and centennial of the First World War. See our Call for Blog Posts for information about submitting to the series.
[i] The late Algonquin Anishinaabeg Spiritual Grandfather William Commanda was a holder of one of these belts which is currently in the possession of the Algonquin Anishinaabeg at Kitigan Zibi in what is now called the province of Quebec. He inscribed his own interpretation. See Gehl 2014.
Gehl, L. (2014). The Truth That Wampum Tells: My Debwewin on the Algonquin Land Claims Process. Halifax and Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.
Miller, J.R. (2004). Lethal Legacy: Current Native Controversies in Canada. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.
Milloy, J.S. (1991). The Early Indian Acts: Development Strategy and Constitutional Change. In J.R. Miller (Ed.), Sweet Promises: A Reader on Indian-White Relations in Canada (pp. 145-154). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Tehanetorens. (2003). Wampum Belts. Oshweken, Ontario: Iroqrafts.
Trigger, B.G., & Day, G.M. (1994). Southern Algonquian Middlemen: Algonquin, Nipissing, and Ottawa. 1550–1780. In E.S. Rogers & D.B. Smith (Eds.), Aboriginal Ontario: Historical Perspectives on the First Nations (pp. 64-77). Toronto: Dundurn Press.
Williams, R. A. (2012). Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization. New York: St. Martin’s Press.