Anishinaabe elder looks to build momentum for community's return to traditional homeland in Ontario

·5 min read
Elder Temius Nate, centre, leads the first meeting of the Miminiska Group with members of the Eabametoong First Nation who are the descendants of families who lived on Miminiska Lake near the First Nation northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont.  (Jon Thompson/CBC - image credit)
Elder Temius Nate, centre, leads the first meeting of the Miminiska Group with members of the Eabametoong First Nation who are the descendants of families who lived on Miminiska Lake near the First Nation northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont. (Jon Thompson/CBC - image credit)

An Anishinaabe elder is gathering support and building momentum for his community to return to their traditional territory in northwestern Ontario.

Temius Nate held the first meeting of the Miminiska Group in Thunder Bay in late March with about 30 members. They are the descendants of families who lived on Miminiska Lake near Eabametoong First Nation, about 350 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay.

Nate estimates 80 to 100 members of the Eabametoong First Nation are eligible to join the Miminiska Group, including 10 members who left more than 50 years ago. They now live in Eabametoong, Thunder Bay and other communities in northern Ontario.

"It's where I was the happiest in my life and I'm still the happiest when I go back there," Nate says. "It's my home and I'll do what it takes to keep it."

Jon Thompson/CBC
Jon Thompson/CBC

Eabametoong Chief Solomon Atlookan said the parties are "working on the finer issues and details," but is not yet commenting on the Miminiska Group's intentions to return.

Eabametoong's chief and council officially recognized Miminiska Group through a band council resolution in 2009, but the resolution says the group must formally apply to the federal government to be recognized as a new band.

Indigenous Services Canada also encouraged the group to apply to be recognized as a band in 2019, but the group has yet to do that.

"This group has expressed their desire to reclaim and relocate to their traditional area around Miminiska Lake in northwestern Ontario in the past," a spokesperson wrote in an email to CBC News. "To date, Indigenous Services Canada has not received a formal request for band separation from this group."

Nate said he has no intention of following that process.

"We want to be a band but we don't want to have a reserve," he said. "As a reserve, the government owns the land and you're boxed in there like an animal on a farm. That doesn't do any good for people wanting to do business with us. We don't need Indian Affairs to tell us we're a band."

It's unclear how the group could achieve band status without following the process set out by the federal government.

Memories of living together

Nate recalls the Indian agent first landing at Miminiska in 1959, informing the large eight or 10 families who lived there that they had to move to Eabametoong so their children could get an education. He said none budged.

The agent returned over five years, Nate said, bringing pallets of canned meat, then vouchers for goods at the store in Eabametoong. Families made the 40-kilometre trek to the reserve and came back. Finally in 1964, a member of his family was elected to Eabametoong council and almost everyone moved.

We want to be a band but we don't want to have a reserve. - Elder Temius Nate

The children and grandchildren of many who lived on Miminiska Lake still return, mostly in the summer.

A 15-kilometre trap line set back from the shore remains. The cabin and church Nate's father, Edward, built are still standing near where he's buried. Edward died in 1991, having never left.

Mary Lou Baxter and her younger sister Flora Baxter attended the Miminiska Group's first organizing meeting.

Now in their 50s, they were members of the first generation of Miminiska families to grow up in Eabametoong. But when school let out in the spring, they looked forward to going back to live at the lake with their grandparents.

Flora remembers her mother telling her throughout her youth that Eabametoong wasn't really her home and she's ambitious to help the families to get back.

"She said: 'My home is actually Miminiska. We were actually brought here. We were moved here,'" Flora recalls. "And I never totally understood that until just in the past few years here .. so I would like to be part of it in any way."

Mary Lou said she'd consider moving to Miminiska Lake if a community developed there.

Economic potential in region

When members can raise the money they need to move home, Nate believes the grandchildren of the people who left Miminiska Lake will finally inherit the economy he was promised in his youth.

When he was a child, an engineer told him harnessing the energy of nearby waterfalls could generate enough hydro to power all of Toronto and Montreal. He can remember prospectors blasting and drilling nearby. Now, with prospective roads and power lines angling toward the Ring of Fire mining deposit northeast of Eabametoong, Nate sees those promises renewed.

The Miminiska Lodge built in 1944 remains a popular fly-in fishing destination for walleye and pike. Thunder Bay-based Wilderness North bought the lodge and seven cabins in 2007. Its president, Alan Cheeseman, said the lodge has employed local guides for generations and would welcome any members who want to return.

"I don't see a big conflict at all. We're selling wilderness and we're selling remoteness. We're selling the fact that wilderness is healthy and I think everybody needs to get back on the land to some degree."

The lodge has also been hosting prospectors digging through the same deposits Nate saw their predecessors exploring a lifetime ago.

CBC
CBC

On April 6, Canadian mining company Lithoquest announced it had completed geological surveys and begun drilling within a 5,500-hectare area northeast of Miminiska Lake. The company's president, Bruce Counts, called the site an "exceptional opportunity" with "high-grade gold mineralization," according to surveys of the site.

Lithoquest has ceased drilling in order to consult with Eabametoong and expects work will resume in the summer.

Counts said the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed consultation, and while he wouldn't comment on whether or not the company intends to consult with Miminiska Group, he said his team "has not yet had an opportunity to meaningfully engage and meet with all community stakeholders involved in our project."

Nate wants to be party to Lithoquest to be consulted. He's also pushing for Ontario to engage Miminiska Group over the licence to operate the airstrip, which has been in the hands of the lodge operators for decades, but was established with local First Nations directors when it was first built.

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