TYENDINAGA MOHAWK TERRITORY -- For the last nearly 30 years, the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte have called one man their chief.
No other leader in the recorded history of the Mohawks can claim that distinction.
That’s because no other has served longer consecutively than Chief R. Donald Maracle. Add to that a dozen years as a councillor prior to becoming chief and Maracle’s legacy and contributions to the history of the Mohawks in the bay are unrivalled.
The chief’s calm demeanor and friendly voice are soothing on a sunny afternoon as he speaks inside his office in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, where he’s agreed to discuss his legacy, the many plights of his people and the state of affairs on the reserve and beyond.
Almost three dacades after assuming the postion of chief, Maracle remembers the conversation with his protégé that led to his running for the position.
“Chief (Earl) Hill had developed heart trouble and he was going to retire,” Maracle recalled, saying Hill, who himself amassed two decades as chief during two tenures, told him ‘You're going to have to run for chief,’” Maracle said.
After brief consideration, Maracle took his friend’s advice.
“I was concerned about his health so I did run for chief and I was elected.”
And thus began an historic run that has seen Maracle lead through parts of four decades, each with its own challenges and obstacles for the Indigenous leader and his people.
“Chief Hill did a great job,” Maracle said, reflecting on Hill’s many accomplishments. “Quinte Mohawk School was built under him, York Road was reconstructed under him, there was a medical services program that he and Dr. Clare Brant brought on the reserve for non-insured health benefits, there was tax exemption off of gasoline,” Chief Maracle said, adding that Hill was integral in land claim filings that continue to this day.
“He did a lot,” Maracle reflected. “He revitalized Mohawk language, and his wife taught Indian dancing so (children) would have some exposure to some elements of their culture. There was nothing like that when I went to school.”
In spite of Hill’s great work, Maracle faced many challenges when he assumed the Mohawk leadership.
“We had all dirt roads (then),” Maracle said. “You could even get stuck on some. There was no way on some of the roads in the springtime, with the frost boiling that was occurring, that a fire truck or a fuel delivery truck or even an ambulance could get through without getting worried about getting stuck.”
Maracle knew to continue to improve the quality of life for his people, he’d need help.
“We had a lot of overwhelming challenges and not a whole lot of money,” he said. “So we had to do an awful lot of lobbying to get the needs of the community recognized. And we still have to do that because there's not enough resources to address the need of all the reserves.”
Lack of roads, funding, access to safe drinking water, land claims and racism were and continue to be daily challenges for the Mohawks. But education, Maracle believes, goes a long way.
“The history of land claims is something that non-Natives should understand,” Maracle said. “Why there are land claims (and) the kinds of abuses and frauds that were perpetuated on Indigenous people historically to free up the land to non-native occupations. I say that Canadians should always respect the Indigenous people because the treaties provided land for them to have a place to live and to have an economy, but again, it wasn’t exclusively theirs.”
Maracle’s priorities have shifted over time, but his mandate, he said, has always remained the same: to provide a better quality of life for Indigenous people on and off the reserve.
“I do my best to address the needs of our people,” Maracle said when asked what is responsible for his longevity. “When people need something, they always let the chief know.”
Right now, those are water and housing, according to Maracle.
“The biggest priorities in our community right now are water and housing – affordable housing” he said. “The cost of living has gone up significantly.”
Both are being addressed currently by Maracle and the MBQ council.
“Ontario had the largest number of boil-water advisories on reserves,” Maracle said, adding that Indigenous Services Canada issued a call for proposals his council submitted a proposal to build a water system that would address the problem. The result was a $30-million grant from Infrastructure Canada to address some of the water needs in the community.
“That will be paying for some of the costs of the 20-kilometre extension of water lines in the community,” Maracle said. “That’ll be fed from our own water tower on York Road,” staring next month and finishing by the end of 2023.
“Then we’re constructing another water line on Bells Road and North Street in Deseronto,” the chief added.
Not only is drinkable water an issue, but so is lack of water during hot summers like this one, Maracle said.
“Right now, there are people starting to buy water because the water table is low,” he said. “With holding tanks, you have to sanitize them at least once a year otherwise it can create health issues as well.”
Boil-water advisories and shortage of water are examples of Canada’s failings when it comes to Indigenous people, Maracle said.
“Chiefs really have such overwhelming amounts of need to address and limited resources. Sometimes you wonder why because Canada is really a prosperous country (that seems) to be able to find money to help other countries within a week or so, but you don't often time to see the same response to a critical issue in a First Nations community.”
Housing is another hurdle Maracle and his council face.
“A few years ago, Indigenous Services Canada and the AFN jointly conducted a housing needs study across Canada,” Maracle said, adding that the study indicated that there was $60 billion needed for both housing and infrastructure. “Sixteen billion was needed for infrastructure, but housing itself, $44 billion was needed to deal with the housing needs in First Nations communities. That’s not great. The budget in 2022 only provided $3 billion, so there’s a huge gap in what monies are appropriated and what is actually needed.”
The chief was critical of what he said is a lack of resources to buy materials to get houses built, as well as an increase in rent by landlords, issues he blames on an inflated housing market following the global Covid-19 pandemic.
“A lot of the landlords off reserve are giving their tenants notice to vacate because they can get higher rent from somebody else because there’s such a chronic shortage of affordable housing,” Maracle said. “So more and more people are falling through the cracks.”
To counter that, MBQ are working steadily to build newer affordable housing.
We’re building houses now in our community,” the chief said. “Some of them are being built on York Road, some on Upper Slash Road, we just completed four units over on Ridge Road, but again, the pace we’re building is not keeping up with the demand. You need infrastructure. You need service lots to build houses on. Right now, we are short on service lots in our community so that’s another issue we’ll be talking to (Indigenous Services Canada) about.”
Under Maracle’s leadership, council also created a housing program that has afforded many residents the opportunity of home ownership.
“We implemented the market-based housing program to guarantee loans with the Bank of Montreal,” he said proudly. “I think there were 120 mortgages with the Bank of Montreal that we’ve guaranteed and we’ve only had one person late by a few months.”
One of the most monumental developments in not only Maracle’s tenure as chief, but in Canadian history, came with the release of 2015’s national Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, which addressed the history and lasting impacts of the Canadian Indian residential school system on Indigenous students and their families. The report issued 94 Calls to Action, which continue to be implemented today.
“The Pope said the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” Chief Maracle said. When you really don’t care about the plight of other people, the only person who matters in life is yourself. Everybody has to be cared about.”
Maracle said he believes the federal government is making progress when it comes to addressing the calls to action and addressing its mistakes, but it is only beginning to scratch the surface.
“I don't think reconciliation is going to happen overnight. Reconciliation is not a tea party where I come and have tea with you and we have cake and we talk to each other,” Maracle said. “There's a lot of work that has to be done to improve the quality of life for Indigenous people. For reconciliation to be meaningful, it needs to be followed up by reconcili’action’.”
Next month’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is one during which Canadians must remember every child matters, Maracle said, before recounting the origin of the orange shirt that symbolizes the national stat holiday.
Orange Shirt Day was inspired by the accounts of Phyllis Jac Webstad, whose clothing—including a new orange shirt gifted to her by her grandmother —was taken from her during her first day of residential schooling, and never returned. The orange shirt is thus used as a symbol of the forced assimilation of Indigenous children that the residential school system enforced.
“Because (her shirt) was from her grandparent, it was probably very highly valued because it was given out of love,” Maracle said. “To have it stripped from them because of somebody else’s perception? What they valued didn’t matter,” he said, detailing the abuse many Indigenous people were subjected to at residential schools.
“They were forced to not speak their languages, to not look like an Indian, to get their hair cut and styled so they’d look more European and to wear the same type of clothes and not to have any of the customs or cultures of their people, but to adopt all of the European ways. It did a lot of harm to the spirit and the soul of the Indigenous people and their families. When they came back, oftentimes they didn’t relate well to their families because they were now different.”
Even worse, the chief said, many died at the schools, their bodies buried in unmarked graves on the school grounds.
“If that happened to anybody else in Canada, (where) their children were taken and they died somewhere and somebody took their privilege to bury them and nobody knew where their child was buried, how would they feel,” the chief asked, emotion in his tone. “Why would we believe that Native people wouldn’t feel any differently?”
As Canada works toward reconciliation, Maracle vowed he will continue to work toward improving the lives of his people.
“I'm proud of our people,” Chief Maracle said. “(They) work and they're responsible people. They make their own way in life and make a living to keep their families safe. I'm proud of the progress we've made in our community. But I still recognize we have more work to do.”
And for now, God willing, he said, he remains happy to lead the way.
"When I lose that passion, then it's time to retire,” Maracle said.
Jan Murphy is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Belleville
Intelligencer. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Jan Murphy, Local Journalism Initiative, Belleville Intelligencer