An appreciation by James Cullingham
I first met Bruce W. Hodgins in a tipi at Camp Wanapitei on Lake Temagami some 400 kilometres north of Toronto. It was 1973.
I was an undergraduate student at Trent University attending the first autumnal Canadian Studies gathering of students and professors at that camp located at Sandy Inlet. The Trent Temagami Weekend continues to this day. Many of us attending next month will have Bruce in our hearts and minds.
That evening I listened intently as Bruce, the weekend’s convenor John Wadland, now Trent University professor emeritus of Canadian Studies, and others talked about the history of Temagami, Indigenous rights and environmental issues.
That began my own dialogue and relationship with Bruce that continued until his death on Thursday August 8 in Nogojiwanong (Peterborough). Bruce W. Hodgins was my professor, my employer, my mentor and, for several decades, my dear friend.
In 1979-1980, Bruce supervised my major research paper as an Honours student in what was then the department of Native Studies (now the Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies) at Trent. My research concerned the struggle for justice of the Teme-Augama Anishinabai, a dispute with the province of Ontario and the federal government that would end up at the Supreme Court of Canada. Bruce was also my employer from 1977 – 1980 when I led canoe trips for Wanapitei. The camp featured, as it does to this day, an extraordinarily ambitious wilderness canoeing programme.
In addition to his charged academic life, Bruce led that operation for decades. My final trip as a leader under Bruce’s stewardship was down the Winisk River to Hudson’s Bay. Bruce Hodgins had a rare ability to suss out the capacity of young people and to challenge them to challenge themselves.
Bruce was an activist, author, master canoeist and scholar.
He made significant contributions to Canadian history as the biographer of Ontario’s first Premier John Sandfield Macdonald and the French Canadian missionary and colonist Charles Paradis who founded a farm on what became the site of Camp Wanapitei.
At Trent University, he researched and taught about the nature of federalism, comparative Canadian and Australian history and the Canadian north.
After retirement he was named Trent University Professor Emeritus of History. His rich list of publications also includes works about Temagami, canoe travel and nastawagan, Indigenous trails, some of which he knew intimately as he portaged his canoe on trips all over the Temagami region, northern Ontario, Québec and the northern territories. John Wadland told me what marked Bruce as an authority on the north was the first hand knowledge of many, many key locations that he garnered as a wilderness canoeist on trips led with his wife Carol.
Bruce was also politically minded. He once ran unsuccessfully for the New Democratic Party in Peterborough’s federal riding. He was an ever trenchant, and always amusing, observer of the Canadian political scene. During my time as a political journalist at CBC Radio, I always wanted to hear his impressions of electoral campaigns and Canadian political leaders. He had an unwavering ability to assess things as they actually were, not as he hoped they might be.
I believe it was his forward thinking embrace of Indigenous rights as a non-Indigenous intellectual that truly distinguished him.
He observed, taught and commented frequently on issues such as the Nisga’a territorial dispute, the efforts of the James Bay Cree to protect their territory from hydro development and the eventual entrenchment of existing Aboriginal and Treaty rights in the Canadian constitution.
But Bruce Hodgins was no arm chair academic. When Indigenous issues came to the fore in his own backyard, he stood up and spoke out. He was among those who supported the Teme-Augama Anishinabai in defence of their lands against rapacious Ontario logging procedures in the 1980s.
His efforts inspired respect from his Indigenous neighbours on Lake Temagami. Former Chief Gary Potts wrote to me after learning of Bruce’s death, “Bruce-Bruce-Bruce, He persisted and persisted to get us all in the same room and the same table – And when Bruce was not able to influence the Ontario Government to stop building the Red Squirrel Road – Pine Torch Road extension – he turned Camp Wanapitei over to the Teme-Augama Anishinabai for base camp, – stood with us and was arrested with us – Carol was at his side!”
Bruce told me that seeing the Teme-Augama Anishinabai flag flying outside the Wanapitei dining hall during the blockade was his Wanapitei proudest moment.
I saw Bruce last in the final days of July at Wanapitei. He was ailing.
The dementia that afflicted his superb mind over the past few years may have effaced his memory, but he was still smiling. I recall getting up from the chair beside his after one of our lakeside visits. He cocked his head slightly, grinned and waved his hand at me from the side. I could have sworn he recognized me emotionally, if not intellectually.
Farewell my friend. I can’t think of another person I’ve had the honour to know who gave so much to so many. Grazie mille.
James Cullingham is a documentary filmmaker, historian and journalist with Tamarack Productions. He’ll be teaching a course at the Chanie Wenjack Scool for Indigenous Studies at Trent University this fall.