‘Anishinaabe’ has many English translations, mostly in reference to creation: a people ‘lowered to earth’ from the sky or born from spontaneous breath by the Creator. But there is another definition suggested by Indigenous scholars and knowledge keepers: the “Good Humans,” or “The People Who Live upon the Earth in the Right Way.”
To live in the ‘right way,’ in a ‘good way,’ is tough enough when a person has all the support and knowledge they could ask for. To be committed to this life when you have been at the mercy of colonialism, fighting to hold onto knowledge, culture and identity, is another thing entirely.
That’s why the community is thankful for its elders, pillars of culture and wisdom, like Elder Waasaanese (Alex Jacobs).
Waasaanese (Wah-Sah-Neh-Seh) was born at Lake Penage on the Whitefish Lake First Nation Community. He is a teacher, trained social worker and one of the members of the Elder’s Council, part of the Indigenous Justice Division (IJD) of the Ministry of the Attorney General.
The Elder’s Council are recent winners of the Law Foundation of Ontario’s Guthrie Award, recognizing exceptional people and groups working to increase access to justice.
The council holds positions for up to 13 Indigenous Elders who are Knowledge Keepers of diverse First Nations background from across Ontario.
The community elders work with the justice system and use their specialized knowledge to support the reclamation of Indigenous legal systems, justice for Indigenous people and work to guide the Ministry of the Attorney General and its staff to repair the relationships between Indigenous people and the Canadian justice system.
“We work to ameliorate some of the situations we are confronted with,” said Waasaanese. “We’re trying to work in collaboration with the police forces, with the health department, with the educational department.”
They also work with tribal police units.
“There's a lot of them that become tribal police officers and yet know very little about their own culture, about the culture that they're trying to police,” said Waasaanese.
Born in 1938, Waasaanese laughs when he says his role as elder largely came about through his family connections.
“My most significant thing here is that I happen to be related to the majority of the community members here in this community,” he said.
What signifies an elder, or someone ready to be an elder, is the kind of work they do, Waasaanese said, and whether they have tried to live in ‘a good way.’
“With the knowledge, study, and understanding of how to do specific ceremonies or cultural practices, and someone that the community looks to for these practices,” he said.
But being an elder isn’t reserved for those who are ‘elderly’.
“It could be someone as young as their early thirties,” said Waasaanese. “Or fifties even, someone that has gained all that knowledge from working with other elders — from their community and other communities — and practices that way of life.”
Someone that lives their life “in a good way.”
When a community member is asked to be an elder, they will begin to teach.
“You’re able to pass teachings on to young people who come to seek advice from you, or have teaching circles and meet with adults too, to pass on that knowledge.”
Elders commonly teach life skills, too.
“What we refer to as the seven stages of life,” said Waasaanese.
The teachings cover childhood, young adolescents up to young adulthood, and even include marriage teachings, and teachings regarding children and further teachings for older adults. “How to teach children to live in a good way their whole life,” said Waasaanese.
He said it is the teachings he can share, “along with what they're being taught by other elders in their community and how they perceive things from other ceremonies done at other communities,” that are integral to the continuation of the culture. “These young people are the ones who will be our future young elders,” said Waasaanese.
Waasaanese also said these young elders are the reason he continues his work on behalf of the Elders Council.
“I am very, very proud of being a part of the Elders Council with the Indigenous justice division,” he said, “We have so much work that we’re doing, we need to constantly focus on our justice system. It's a system that has gone terribly wrong.”
Waasaanese said it's important the media get the information “in a good way” about the work the Elders Council, and similar bodies, do.
“In terms of restorative justice, we have two communities now, one in Brantford and one in Thunder Bay, who have a judicial court system run in the Indigenous court way,” he said. “We have elders that sit in on the courts and help to make the decisions or hand out the types of decisions for sentencing, depending on the severity of the offenses.”
And this system is working.
“One case in particular, the young man at the center of it was given a sentence of a year, and he was sent out of the community.” Not jailed, but exiled, one could say.
“He was placed in another location north of the community and he had to stay there for that period of time,” said Waasaanese. “Nobody could visit him or anything, only the people that were there to make sure that he was healthy, well taken care of and cared for in a ‘good way’. When the year was up, he came out and he was a different man. A different person. And he has never offended again.”
Of the similar cases that Waasaanese has watched take this route, only one of the 14 people reoffended.
Waasaanese says that he also sees his role as an elder as simply “a person with an open heart,” and wisdom to give.
“I have to open my heart to many things, trying to let them know that I'm not any different than they are as a young person,” he said. “I was where you are at one time, I tell them, and you're going to be where I am. At a time in the future, you're going to be in the same position that I am now and you're going to have to pass what you know, and what you went through on to your young ones.”
He hopes to help his community continue to have open hearts. “My only wish is that I have time to teach what I want to teach.”
Jenny Lamothe is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com. She covers the Black, immigrant and Francophone communities.
Jenny Lamothe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Sudbury.com