Monday, 15 November 2021

Tomson Highway - His Memoir Permanent Astonishment and His Time in London, Ontario, Canada, 1975-1978

Disclaimer: My references to the writings of other people--both Indigenous and Non-Indigenous--do not in any way imply that they share my views on this manner.  The opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my family, friends or associates.

Acknowledgements: Tomson Highway, whom I have known since 1978, is OK with my writing this post; I have consulted with him about the content.  Tomson's partner Raymond Lalonde is also fine with my using the photos he took on August 20, 2021.  James Stewart Reaney gave me the go ahead to discuss his November 2015 London Free Press article about Wacousta!  Doug Struthers was happy to offer his feedback on the memoir and his friendship with Tomson and Rene (1954-1990).  Thanks to the Ivey Family London Room staff for research assistance.  Darshan Gunvantbhai Bhavsar has given me permission to thank him publicly for adding some coding to my blog.  I needed to have this done in order to publish this post.

A Brief Synopsis of Permanent Astonishment

The central focus of this post will be Cree author and musician Tomson Highway's memoir Permanent Astonishment (2021).  Highway takes the reader on a fascinating journey through the first 15 years of his life.  On December 6, 1951, he was born the 11th of 12 children in a remote Manitoba community.  He describes his birthplace as "the most beautiful location on the face of this earth."  

His passages about the flora and fauna are often mesmerizing.  For instance, he describes the sharp-eyed Arctic tern as an "aristocrat" that resides "almost exclusively in. . .permanent flight."  But Highway makes it clear the landscape can also be treacherous, e.g., when the spring melt turns the earth into a month-long bog.

His father, Joe Highway, did not want Highway's life cut short by the challenging conditions the family were living under.  He wanted his son to get an education so he could "save our people."  In September 1958, Joe put six-year-old Highway on a plane to the Guy Hill Indian residential school, 25 miles north of The Pas.

Two years later, in September 1960, Joe put his youngest son Rene (1954-1990) on the plane to join his brother at the school.  Rene begged his parents to let him attend a year early because he missed Tomson so much.  His parents relented because by the time Rene was born, they had seen so much death in their immediate family that they wanted both Highway and Rene to "go to a place where death" would not "get" them.

Highway's father had wanted to go to school but could not because of his family situation.  He resented the fact that his younger siblings had attended, but he remained illiterate throughout his life.  Consequently, he advised Highway to get an education so he would not have to "undergo extreme suffering."

Highway makes it clear what the "extreme suffering" entailed.  The family had no indoor plumbing and had to haul water from the lake for cooking, washing, and drinking.  They were often poor, so his father sometimes had to take out a line of credit at the store.  At age 11, Highway became a six-days-a-week "fully accredited, professional commercial fisherman" because Joe did not have enough men to help him with his business.  Although Highway enjoyed the time he spent with his father on these fishing expeditions, he acknowledged the strong winds and rain could make gutting hundreds of fish for "ten hours non-stop" very difficult.

I was not at all surprised when I learned Highway's memoir had won the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Award for Non-Fiction (announced November 3, 2021).  As the jury stated, Highway made a "bold personal choice to accentuate the wondrousness of his school years."

And this wondrousness includes describing both the positive and negative.  He presents Non-Indigenous clergy and staff as individuals, some good and some bad.  In the good category are the Non-Aboriginals who worked long hours making many sacrifices for the benefit of the students (Miss Menard and the Christmas gift wrappers are two of numerous examples).  Then there are those who gave Highway skills that have benefitted him for the rest of his life, like Sister St. Aramaa who taught him how to play the piano.  

Highway also describes the Non-Indigenous clergy who wronged him and others, like Brother Lemoine who sexually abused not only him and his brother Rene but also many other male students at the school.  However, Highway is not going to waste his time dwelling on abuse that happened 60 years ago.  He wants to love and be loved by those who have helped him and given him joy throughout his life.

When Highway presents Non-Aboriginal behaviour that is counter-productive to his culture, he often does not take a heavy-handed approach.  For instance, he describes the "token" system in which Sister Ann encouraged the Indigenous students to tattle on each other when they spoke their language.  This contributed to a considerable amount of animosity between the pupils.  Nevertheless, Highway explained Sister Ann's reasoning.  She was concerned the students would never learn their subjects such as history and social studies if they did not master the English language.

Quite a few residential school accounts speak of students being made to stay all year, but that was not the case at Guy Hill.  They went home in July and August every year.  Many residential school stories also complain about the food, but the Guy Hill students were well-fed.  For example, they had turkey dinner with all the trimmings, including cake and ice cream, at Christmas.

Highway depicts both the positive and negative of Indigenous people before, during and after his residential school years.  The most glowing praise is often reserved for his late parents Joe and Balazee Highway, who inspire him in many ways, e.g., their humour in the face of adversity, their belief in the importance of helping others and their prayers of thanks to their saviour Jesus Christ.

However, Highway also describes harmful experiences with Aboriginals, such as residential school dormitory "keeper" Stanley Blackbird who punched him in the head because he did not like Highway's two-spirited (gay) behaviour.

Highway left Guy Hill with the highest mark in the school (95 per cent) and reportedly one of the highest scholastic standings in all of Manitoba.

Highway's Activities, 1967 to September 1978

Highway continued to excel at a Winnipeg high school.  At the University of Manitoba, he studied piano under the direction of William Aide.  Aide moved to the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario in 1974, and Highway joined him there to continue his instruction.  In 1975, he obtained his Bachelor of Arts Honours (piano performance, major) and the following year got the equivalent of a Bachelor of Arts (English major) both from Western.

Before I continue with this post, I would like to explain how I got involved with Indigenous issues, which eventually led to my first meeting Highway in 1978 in London.  I think it is important to frame my analysis within the context of my personal background.

Below is a photo of the front covers of books I own that are written by Highway:

Leith Peterson's books by Tomson Highway

Why Leith Peterson Got Involved With Indigenous Issues

I got introduced to Indigenous issues by my late parents when I was six.  Around 1970, my father Charles T Peterson (1913-2007) put together a biographical sketch about my mother Jay Peterson (1920-1976).  In this sketch, he said Mom "became interested in the plight of Indians" in 1958 "when she found a young Trinidad teacher helping the Indians of Muncey. . .and Oneida. . .during his summer vacation and Canadians themselves not doing it."

The initial way Mom got involved with the reserve Indigenous women was by bringing their crafts to town, selling the items, and then returning with the money she had made to give to the women.  What resulted were lifelong friendships with Native women in many different communities, such as Six Nations of the Grand River, Cape Croker, Oneidas of the Thames and Chippewas of the Thames.  

From 1963 to 1970, Mom was on the Western Fair Board and helped organize events where Native people demonstrated, displayed and sold their crafts.  Mom was also active, from 1964 to 1976, with the Indian-Eskimo Association of Canada (IEA) and its successor the Canadian Association in Support of the Native Peoples (CASNP).  

The Fall 1978 CASNP Bulletin, entitled "On Native Women," was dedicated to my mother.  Joanne Hoople, the IEA executive director, described my mother as a "selfless worker throughout her adult life. . .who is remembered as someone who inspired others."  Hoople talked about my mother's contribution to the establishment of the N'Amerind Friendship Centre (the London, Ontario Indigenous friendship centre) as well as her work "furthering the objectives of the Indian-Eskimo Association" and then CASNP.

My Father's Interest in Indigenous Issues

My father shared my mother's enthusiasm for Indigenous issues, particularly in connection with environmental stewardship.  This was mainly because he was born and raised in Bruce Mines (near Sault Ste. Marie) Ontario and witnessed first-hand the problems caused by irresponsible development.  Consequently, he had sympathies for Indigenous peoples' concerns in this regard.

Dad often complained about the lack of trees in the First Nations communities he visited, so he decided to do something about it.  He told me that every year, for many years, he gave thousands of saplings to Oneidas of the Thames and Six Nations--and planted some of them himself.  No wonder his friends there called him the "tree man."  His funeral program included an "Iroquois prayer."

I Got Involved With Indigenous Issues Because of My Parents

It is not surprising that I got involved with Indigenous issues because both my parents were very much engaged with the matter.  I initially got connected in a variety of ways, such as going to the reserves with my mother and doing volunteer work at the N'Amerind Friendship Centre.

In 1973, I got my Library Technician diploma from Fanshawe College in London.  This diploma led to my finding employment with the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories (IB-NWT) in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, from May 1975 to October 1976.  The IB-NWT (which became the Dene Nation in 1978) needed my expertise because they were participating in the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry (MVPI) hearings.  They wanted someone to organize the hearing transcripts and train a Dene man in library work.

When I learned my mother was terminally ill, I returned to London in October 1976, and remained with her until her tragic passing in December 1976.  During the difficult time I spent with her before her passing, I was invited to a meeting at the Cross Cultural Learner Centre (CCLC).  The CCLC was located at Westminster College on the University of Western Ontario campus.  There were a group of Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal people there discussing the formation of the Committee in Support of Native Concerns (CSNC).  One of these people recommended I become the coordinator, so from November 1976 to July 1977, I filled this position.  After I stopped being the CSNC coordinator, I continued as co-chair from August 1977 to August 1978.

From November 1976 to February 1977, I also secured a temporary, part-time position locating information for Don Simpson's Native Studies class at Althouse College (now the Faculty of Education), University of Western Ontario.  In August 1974, Simpson co-founded the "Southern Support Group" to help win support for the Dene cause in the south.  My work with Simpson built on my employment with the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories (IB-NWT), 1975-1976.  (As previously mentioned, the IB-NWT became the Dene Nation in 1978.)

In addition, from November 1977 to March 1978, I worked full-time on a government grant, developing a unique classification/cataloguing system for the Native people's collection of the Cross Cultural Learner Centre.

How Leith Peterson Got to Know Tomson Highway

Around December 1977, Highway started working at the Native Peoples Resource Centre (NPRC)--his first job as an Indigenous activist.  The NPRC was in the same location as the Cross Cultural Learner Centre.  The Cross Cultural Learner Centre/Native Peoples Resource were by this time located at 247 Epworth Avenue in London.

I have the December 1977 Native Peoples Resource Centre newsletter, called NPRC News, where there is mention of the Festival of Native Music '78 getting organized.  Highway was the coordinator of this festival.

Around April 1978, Highway and I were asked to share a desk, because there were not enough due to funding limitations.  I was concerned about how this arrangement would work out, but Highway was a perfect gentleman.  For several months, we managed to share the desk and its contents in such an effortless manner, I wondered why I had even worried about it.

Highway hired five Indigenous women from five different reserves to assist him with the festival.  They all worked together beautifully, laughing and loving every minute of it.  Highway directed them as if he was conducting an orchestra.  During August 1978, the festival took place in some Indigenous communities in the London area, at London's Victoria Park, and on the University of Western Ontario campus.

Even though Highway had obtained funding from a variety of government and private sources, he needed more because of the scope of the entertainment.  For instance, there were Inuit Throat Singers from Arctic Quebec and the Pueblo Youth Dancers from San Juan, New Mexico.  When Cree singer Buffy Sainte-Marie was performing in Toronto, Highway spoke to her in Cree and convinced her to do a benefit concert at no charge for 400 diners at Western's Great Hall.  I was involved with this concert because the Committee in Support of Native Concerns was a co-sponsor.  Sainte-Marie wowed the sold-out crowd on August 7, 1978.

Below is a photo of brochures, posters and articles I have relating to the Festival of Native Music '78 and the Buffy Sainte-Marie benefit concert:

Festival of Native Music '78 and Buffy Sainte-Marie concert

Peterson and Highway's Connection, 1978 to 1998

From October 1978 until April 1987, I was employed primarily in Indigenous organizations in Timmins, Ontario and Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.  Most of my work in this area involved training Aboriginal people in library work.

In October 1978, Highway moved to Toronto where he was active with a variety of Indigenous organizations.  From 1986 onwards, his attention turned to the performing arts, and he started penning works himself.  I really enjoyed discovering another dimension of his talent when I saw The Rez Sisters at the Factory Theatre in Toronto in 1988.  Nanabush was expertly played by Rene in this production.

After completing my Canadian Studies B.A. at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, I returned to London in June 1989 to work on my Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) degree at Western.  I was happy to read in the Western News that Highway got an honorary doctorate in Music from Western in June 1993.

A couple of months before my MLIS degree was conferred in June 1994, I had a more extensive visit with Highway when I attended an Ottawa event to honour him after he got the Order of Canada.  I also saw him very briefly when his The Rez Sisters was performed at the Grand Theatre in London in 1995.

In September 1998, Highway came to London for the launch of his novel Kiss of the Fur Queen.  Afterwards, playwright James Reaney (1926-2008) and his poet wife Colleen Thibaudeau Reaney (1925-2012) invited me over to their place where I had a visit with Highway.

Highway the Cree "Coach" for James Reaney's Wacousta! in the Fall of 1976

In the fall of 1976, Highway was the Cree "coach" for playwright James Reaney's adaptation of Wacousta! which takes place in 1763.  The play recounts Indigenous warriors led by Pontiac fighting against the British not too far from present-day London, Ontario.  Although Highway did not participate in the final productions of the play, he gave guidance to the workshop participants.  He carried down on a crowded bus moose antlers from Northern Manitoba.  These antlers were used in scenes depicting elk in Scotland.

Although Highway's involvement with Wacousta! was limited, he was inspired by some of Reaney's other works, such as the Donnelly trilogy.  Reaney made him realize that "world-class literature" was being produced in London.  Reaney also encouraged him to write about Indigenous "people and places."

Doug Struthers Friend of Both Tomson and Rene Highway (1954-1990)

In the mid-1970s, Londoner Doug Struthers became friends with Highway and his brother Rene.  Tomson borrowed Struthers's car when he picked up Buffy Sainte-Marie from the airport, so she could perform at the August 7, 1978 concert mentioned above.  Struthers's car was then nicknamed the "Buffy mobile."

Struthers's reading of Permanent Astonishment reminded him of Rene's delight in watching a toy train race around a track in a storefront window of a Yonge Street restaurant in Toronto.  Although Tomson's description of "permanent astonishment" in his memoir relates to the "godly kingdom" he comes from, Struthers believes that Rene demonstrated "permanent astonishment" in his love for everyday matters that most people would not pay much attention to.

Struthers also witnessed Rene's "permanent astonishment" when he saw his brother perform at his April 1975 graduation concert.  Tomson played Bach, Schumann, Schoenberg and Scriabin.  Rene sat straight up in his chair, listening very intently.  After the concert, Tomson's piano teacher invited them all back to a reception at his place in London.

Below is a photo of Struthers, Highway and Highway's long-time partner, Raymond Lalonde, taken August 20, 2021:

Struthers, Highway and Lalonde, August 20, 2021

Saw Highway Again in September and November 2015

When I read that Highway was addressing the positive side of his residential school experiences, I contacted him to see if he would be willing to be briefly mentioned in a September 2015 post I was writing about the Truth and Reconciliation of Canada final report executive summary.  Highway not only agreed to be quoted (my post was published September 7, 2015), but also invited me to be his guest when he was inducted into Western's Faculty of Music Wall of Fame on September 25, 2015.  James Reaney's son, James Stewart Reaney, and his wife Susan Wallace, as well as Struthers, also attended Highway's Wall of Fame event.

On November 8, 2015, James Stewart Reaney, Susan Wallace, their daughter Elizabeth Wallace Reaney, Struthers and I were also present when Highway gave a very interesting presentation to London's Wordsfest, in partnership with Western's Indigenous Services.  "An Afternoon With Tomson Highway" included him playing the piano and a question-and-answer session.

Below is a photo of my Highway ephemera, 1988-2015:

Leith Peterson's Highway ephemera, 1988-2015

Met Up with Highway Again in August 2021

Almost six years later, I saw Highway again on August 20, 2021.  This was when Highway, his long-time partner Raymond Lalonde, Struthers, James Stewart Reaney and I enjoyed a delicious supper at the Budapest Restaurant in London.  Highway and Lalonde were on their way to Stratford to see Highway's The Rez Sisters, which had a successful run there.  The three photos of our get together are courtesy of Lalonde.

Below is a photo of Struthers, Highway and me that was taken at the dinner:

Struthers, Highway and Peterson, August 20, 2021


Highway has not changed at all since I first met him in 1978.  His internationally renowned stature and his numerous awards have not gone to his head.  I think this is mainly because he knows he has not achieved these heights alone.  He frequently praises those around him, including Non-Indigenous people, who have helped him along the way.

Past challenges do not fell him but make him stronger.  He has fully taken to heart what his father told him: the most disgusting vegetation makes the best manure.  In the manure of Highway's life, he has produced a beautiful garden, vibrant with music.  He is a gem and I am happy to call him my friend.

A toast to Highway's accomplishments, now and in the future!

Struthers, Highway and Peterson, August 20, 2021


Bambury, B.  (2017, June 30).  No one is stopping Tomson Highway from having a happy Canada Day.  Retrieved from CBC:

Canadian Press.  (1992, September 26).  Reaney influenced playwright.  London Free Press.

CBC Radio - Q.  (2021, October 13).  Today on Q: Tomson Highway, Brent Spiner.  Retrieved from CBC:

CBC Radio - Unreserved (2021, November 12).  In new memoir, Tomson Highway reveals his secret to his 'utterly positive spirit'--his parents.  Retrieved from CBC:

Festival of Native Music '78.  (1978).  Festival of Native Music '78 [brochure].  London, Ontario

Gallagher, N. (1998, October 3).  The creative drive of Tomson Highway.  London Free Press, pp C1-C2.

Gillespie, I. (1995, February 10).  Highway brings Sisters home.  London Free Press.

Hamilton, J. D. (1994).  Arctic Revolution: Social Change in the Northwest Territories, 1935-1994.  Toronto: Dundurn.

Henderson, M. (2021, November 6).  Highway recalls residential school, family bonds and more in new memoir.  Retrieved from Winnipeg Free Press:

Highway, T. (1987-1988).  The Rez Sisters [program].  Toronto.  The Factory Theatre.

Highway, T. (1995).  The Rez Sisters [program].  London, Ontario: The Grand Theatre.

Highway-Highlight-Night [program]. 1994, April 14.  Ottawa.

Johnson, R. (1998, October 8).  Tomson Highway: the Spirit of a Storyteller.  Scene, p. 21.

Kapoor, A. (1995, February 15). The Rez Sisters makes a battle of bingo.  Gazette, p. 9.

Matyas, J. (1995, February 11).  The Rez Sisters stirs audience to wild applause.  London Free Press.

Mulhern, M. (1978, August 8).  Buffy's native talk impressive.  London Free Press.

Native Peoples Resource Centre.  (1978, August 7).  An evening with Buffy Sainte-Marie [poster].

Newman, R. (1978, July 26).  Buffy helping to launch festival.  London Free Press, p. D10.

Newman, R. (1978, August 17).  Costumes hide the stories behind native dancers.  London Free Press.

Newman, R. (1978, August 15).  Indian dancers stop the clock.  London Free Press, p. A10.

Nestruck, J. K. (2021, August 1).  The Rez Sisters gets a miraculous production at Stratford Festival.  Retrieved from: Globe and Mail: https:/

Ostroff, J. (2015, December 15).  Tomson Highway Has a Surprisingly Positive Take on Residential Schools.  Retrieved from HuffPost Canada:

Peterson, C. T. (1970?).  Peterson - Jessie Royce (Fleming) - "Jay Peterson" [biographical sketch].  unpublished.

Peterson, L. (1978, September).  Festival of Native Music '78.  Satellite, pp. 23-24.

Quill and Quire. (2021).  Permanent Astonishment by Tomson Highway [review].  Retrieved from Quill and Quire:

Reaney, J. S. (2015, October 30).  CanLit stars to shine at Words fest.  Retrieved from London Free Press:

Reaney, J. S. (2015, November 14).  The Highway at journey's start.  London Free Press, p. E4.

Richer, S. (1993, May 29).  Tomson Highway: His road to success has been a long one.  London Free Press.

Schaefer, N. (1998, October 3).  Highway's first novel a winner.  London Free Press, p. C15.

Talbot, B. (1978, August 11).  Buffy: a time for change.  The Summer Gazette, p. 8.

The Book Store at Western & USC Speakers.  (1998, October 5).  Autumn Writes II: Tomson Highway's Kiss of the Fur Queen [program].

Tomson Highway.  Biography.  Retrieved from Tomson Highway:

van Koeverden, J. (2021, November 3).  Katherena Vermette, Tomson Highway and Cherie Dimaline among winners at Writers' Trust Awards.  Retrieved from CBC:

van Koeverden, J. (2021, October 7).  Tomson Highway's memoir, Permanent Astonishment, is written as a 'symphony to life'.  Retrieved from CBC:

Western Alumni. (2015, September 25).  41st Annual Alumni Awards Dinner [program].  London, Ontario

Western Faculty of Arts and Humanities. (2016, January 6).  Words Fest 2015: An Afternoon With Tomson Highway.  Retrieved from You Tube:

Western News. (1993, March 16).  Distinguished contributions to be honored.  Western News, pp. 1,4.

Friday, 11 December 2020

Part Three of Three - John Baptist Askin (1788-1869) - The Askin Family's Connection to Detroit, 1700s-1800s

Part Three - Disclaimer: My references to the writings of other people--including Indigenous, Non-Indigenous and African American--do not in any way imply that they share my views on this matter.  The opinions expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily represent those of my family, friends or associates.

Part Three - Acknowledgements: A number of people--in London, Ontario, Canada and elsewhere--assisted me in the development of this three-part post series, not only in terms of the content, but also with technological matters relating to Google Blogger's new interface.  Because of the controversial nature of some aspects of the subject matter, I have concluded it is probably best not to thank them all here.  Their help was deeply appreciated, but any errors or omissions are mine.

Part Three - Sally Ainse (1728-1823) and Lisette Denison (1786-1866)

The research I did this year (2020) has led me to conclude it was not just a simple matter of Askin Sr and Jr being disreputable people.  Their behaviour, although reprehensible by today's standards, was common during the time period.

An Oneida/Shawnee trader and diplomat named Sally Ainse (1728-1823), and a former business associate of Askin Sr, profited from trafficking both Indigenous and Black slaves.  Askin Sr was one of the people she held an account with while she prospered as a successful Detroit independent trader.  She wore European clothes, owned two homes and was served by four slaves.  

In 1787, she moved to Upper Canada where she engaged in land transactions with Indigenous tribes and British officials.  In 1794, she acted as a go-between for Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant (Thayendanegaea) (1742/43-1807) in his negotiations with some Western Indigenous tribes during the aftermath of the Battle of Fallen Timbers.

John Graves Simcoe (1752-1806) was the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada from 1791 until 1796.  He initially took Ainse's concerns seriously, but in the end she did not get the land she wanted.  Clarke said she did not deserve the treatment she received because she had negotiated in good faith between the Indigenous and Non-Indigenous communities.  He observed that she was on the "wrong end of the gradient of power."

Elizabeth (Lisette) Denison (1786-1866) was born into Black slavery, but later secured her freedom partly though the actions of Askin Sr's son-in-law, Elijah Brush (1775-1813).  Although Brush has been described as one of Detroit's first abolitionists, he was not lobbying for the end of slavery, but advocating on behalf of the Peter and Hannah Denison family (Lisette was their daughter).  Brush had personal ties with and great respect for Peter Denison, in particular.

Although Lisette could not read or write, the Detroit elite who she worked for guided her through the legal proceedings necessary to make profitable investments.  In the process of doing this, she acquired dispossessed Indigenous land.  On some of this same land, she set aside provisions to establish a church at Gros Isles, Michigan.  She might not have realized the implications of what she was doing in terms of the land previously occupied by Indigenous tribes.  However, she was reportedly not as concerned with race as she was about inequality between rich and poor.  Her purpose for establishing the church was to have a place where people of any background could worship.  In 1868, St James Episcopal Church was consecrated, partly with the funds she had set aside in her will.  The church's doors are dedicated to her memory, and an historical marker on the site recognizes her contribution.

Part Three - Detroit's "Governing Classes"

Detroit's "governing classes" transitioned from Indigenous to French to British to American from the early 1700s until around 1801.  Consequently, it was challenging to stay on the good side of those in power.  Askin Sr, Jr, Ainse and Denison were living during a period of intense political unrest, including the Seven Year's War (aka French and Indian War), 1756-1763, Pontiac's War, 1763-1766, and the American Revolution, 1775-1783.  

Part Three - Slavery Existed in Both Non-Indigenous and Indigenous Communities

Slavery was widespread throughout the world at this time, and the version introduced by both the French and the British into the Great Lakes region was often cruel and demoralizing.  But Miles said that generally speaking the northern version of slavery was not quite as brutal as what existed on the plantations in the American south.

However, it was not just the newly arrived Europeans who practised slavery.  Indigenous groups throughout North America had held members of other tribes in captivity for centuries before contact.  There were occasions when terrible things happened to those in bondage, e.g., torture and death.  A lot depended on the tribe in question.  Some tribes assimilated captives--particularly women and children--into their societies.

Since many of the slaves captured by the Great Lakes tribes came from the Western Plains, the French called them Panis.  The enslaved were offered in trade or negotiation, or replaced dead warriors.  Indigenous groups also traded African Americans they had taken during southern plantation raids.

Many people associate the Detroit area as a gateway to freedom for slaves via the Underground Railroad.  But during the 1770s to 1810 period, in particular, there were slaves there.  This was because of loopholes in legislation, such as the Northwest Ordinance.

These indentured people were not part of the fur trade economy per se, but provided stability to the settlement economy.

Miles recognized the relationship between the free and unfree was complex.  She noted the interconnectedness between Indigenous, French, British, Black, American and Canadian societies.  She acknowledged that some Native American tribes warred with each other, utilized slaves, and did not treat their women very well.

There were numerous variations on this theme.  For instance, Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant, mentioned earlier in connection with Sally Ainse, held Blacks in bondage starting around 1784.  One of them, Sophia Pooley, was interviewed about her experiences when she was 90.  Her account was published in an 1856 book of fugitive slave narratives.  Pooley had some positive, but mostly negative, experiences when she resided in the Brant household.  If you want to know more, consult the sources listed in the bibliography.

Another factor that adds to the complexity is that some Blacks felt more comfortable in the White world than they did in the Indigenous one.  However, Indigenous and Black slaves also intermarried.

In Detroit, Aboriginal slaves initially outnumbered Blacks, but this gradually changed to Blacks outnumbering Aboriginal.  It was more difficult for British officials to enslave Indigenous people, because of the political situation.  As previously mentioned, the French often had a better relationship with the original inhabitants than the British.  By 1810, the Native population had dwindled, and freed Blacks had moved across the border to Canada.

Part Three - Conclusion to Part Three and to This Three-Part Series

Due to all the variables discussed in Part Three, and in this three-part series generally, I think it is important to consider Askin Sr et al's behaviour in historical context.  During the fur trade, Indigenous people still retained some power and influence in the Great Lakes, and they often used it to gain concessions from the colonists.  They could be either perpetrators or victims, depending on who was in power.  Europeans also contributed to the discord, by frequently sowing divisions between Indigenous and Black people.

The situation is quite different today in many respects.  But Canada and the United States are still struggling with political, cultural and racial upheavals.  I am mulling over the issues raised by the research I did for this series, so this is the best I can do for a conclusion at the moment.

Part Three - Bibliography

Allen, R S, & Conn, H. (2019, July 9).  Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea).  Retrieved from Canadian Encyclopedia:

Banersee, M. (2018, February 19).  Detroit's dark secret: slavery.  Retrieved from Michigan Today:

Clarke, J. (1987).  Ainse (Hands), Sarah (Montour; Maxwell; Wilson (Willson).  Retrieved from Dictionary of Canadian Biography:

Clarke, J. (2001).  Land, Power and Economics on the Frontier of Upper Canada.  Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Curnoe, G. (1994).  Deeds/Nations.  London, Ontario: London Chapter, Ontario Archeological Society.

Henry, N.L. (2020, June 9).  Black enslavement in Canada.  Retrieved from Canadian Encyclopedia:

Historic Elmwood Cemetery & Foundation.  (2020, September 20).  Elijah Brush.  Retrieved from Historic Elmwood Cemetery & Foundation:

Historic Elmwood Cemetery & Foundation.  (2020, September 20).  Elizabeth Denison Forth "Lisette".  Retrieved from Historic Elmwood Cemetery & Foundation:

Holroyd, I. (2014, February 21).  Burlington audience hears story of slave owned by Joseph Brant.  Retrieved from Burlington Post:

McNeil, M. (2013, July 30).  One of the first non-natives in the area was a slave.  Retrieved from Hamilton Spectator:

Miles, T. (2013, May/June).  Slavery in Early Detroit.  Michigan History, pp. 33-37.

Miles, T. (2017).  The dawn of Detroit: a chronicle of slavery and freedom in the city of the straits.  New York: New Press.

Shamus, K J. (2017, July 25).  How a freed slave made it into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame.  Retrieved from Detroit Free Press:

Wikipedia contributors.  (2019, November 29).  Elijah Brush.  Retrieved from Wikipedia:

Wikipedia contributors.  (2018, August 29).  Sally Ainse.  Retrieved from Wikipedia:

Wikipedia contributors.  (2020, August 11).  Lisette Denison Forth.  Retrieved from Wikipedia:

Wikipedia contributors.  (2020, September 19).  Slavery among Native Americans in the United States.  Retrieved from Wikipedia:

Part Two of Three - John Baptist Askin (1788-1869) - His Connection to My Eldon House Play

Part Two - Disclaimer: My references to the writings of other people--including Indigenous, Non-Indigenous and African American--do not in any way imply that they share my views on this matter.  The opinions expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily represent those of my family, friends or associates.

Part Two - Acknowledgements: A number of people--in London, Ontario, Canada and elsewhere--assisted me in the development of this three-part post series, not only in terms of the content, but also with technological matters relating to Google Blogger's new interface.  Because of the controversial nature of some aspects of the subject matter, I have concluded it is probably best not to thank them all here.  Their help was deeply appreciated, but any errors or omissions are mine.

Part Two - Note: The photo I took of John Wilson's grave at the Woodland Cemetery in 2000 is included with the permission of the cemetery.  Eldon House gave me the go-ahead to use the photo of Amelia Harris's portrait, which I took at Eldon House in 2000.

Part Two - Background Information Regarding My Amelia Play at Eldon House, 2001 and 2003

In February 2001, my one-act stage play, entitled "Amelia at the Forks of Ayzhkanzeebee: Propriety and Passion," premiered in the drawing room of Eldon House, an historic site here in London, Ontario, Canada.  There was also a second production, with a different cast and crew, in February 2003.  Both versions were produced by Museum London.  I took some liberties with the truth for dramatic effect, but for the most part, my script was based on historical sources.

The Harris family lived at Eldon House from 1834 until 1959.  In 1994, Robin Harris, a descendant of the family, published portions of the diaries of five women who lived at the estate at one time or another.  The most prolific was Amelia Harris (1798-1882), the matriarch, who kept a diary from 1857 until shortly before her passing in 1882.  Amelia's entries were often little jewels of wit, which chronicled life in the Forest City.

Amelia Harris (1798-1882)

Amelia was one of two characters in my play.  The other was lawyer/politician, John Wilson (1809-1869), who frequently visited Amelia.  Wilson killed a man in the last fatal duel in Upper Canada in 1833 while still a law student in Perth.  He moved to London a year later.

Amelia and Wilson liked to spar when they got together, and during the play they turned their attention to Baptist Askin.  While Amelia considered Askin to be one of her "oldest friends," Wilson did not share her enthusiasm.

Wilson and Askin did not have the same political views.  This problem extended to bureaucratic differences when around 1840, Wilson took over responsibility from Askin for the management of county funds.  He questioned Askin on his handling of these funds, which led to animosity between the two.

Askin had other detractors besides Wilson, but he was still considered one of the local elite (aka Family Compact)--an aristocratic governing class that believed power should remain in the hands of a select few.  This clique held sway over Upper Canada from the early to mid-1800s.  Because he was part of the Family Compact, like Amelia, it is not surprising he was a regular Eldon House guest.  Amelia frequently mentioned him in her diaries.

Part Two - Script for My Play Published in Anthology

In 2003, my Amelia play script was published in an anthology of London plays that premiered in 2001.  For further information about this book, refer to the Ballyhoo 2001 entry in the bibliography.

Part Two - End Note #1: Indigenous Names for the Thames River

An Indigenous resource person originally from a Northern Ontario reserve provided me with the Indigenous name for the Thames River--Ayzhkanzeebee.  But there are numerous variations on the name, based on the tribe in question and geographical location.  Kim Deleary, who at the time was working for the "Chippewa Land Claim Trust and Historical Research Department at Muncey, Ontario," had an article published on the different Indigenous names for the Thames River.  It was in the March 8, 2001 edition of Scene Magazine (see bibliography).  For further information beyond Deleary's article, I suggest consulting local Indigenous groups.

Part Two - End Note #2: Eldon House Governance and Amelia Harris's Portrait

As previously mentioned, the Harrises lived at Eldon House from 1834 until 1959.  It was bequeathed to the City of London in 1960 and is a popular tourist attraction.

In an August 10, 2020 email to me, Tara Wittmann, the Eldon House curator director, explained that the house has experienced a multi-faceted governance since 1960.  At first it was under the auspices of the London Public Library.  This was because the library ran several historical buildings and managed an art collection  In 1989, the London Public Library's "museum" division amalgamated with the London Regional Art Gallery to form the London Regional Art and Historical Museum (LRAHM).  Eldon House continued to be managed under this umbrella after LRAHM changed its name to Museum London in 2001.

On January 1, 2013, the City of London Council passed a by-law for Eldon House to become a stand-alone Municipal Service Board.  Although the City still owns this historic site, it is managed by the Eldon House Board of Directors.

The portrait of Amelia Harris is by J B Wandesforde (1817-1907).  He is believed to have created it during the years he lived in Canada (1847-1857).  This portrait is located in the Eldon House drawing room.

John Wilson (1809-1869)

Part Two - End Note #3: John Wilson's Grave at the Woodland Cemetery.  Photo I took in 2000.

Wilson's inscription reads:

In Memory of the Honorable John Wilson

One of the judges of Her Majesty's Court of Common Pleas of this Province,

Died 3rd June 1869

Aged 63 years

Rom C.5.V.6.7.8

F.B. Gullett, Toronto

(A London historian supplied the information that F.B. Gullett was the Toronto monument maker.)

Part Two - Conclusion

The research I did into Baptist Askin for my Eldon House play made me realize he was a complex individual with both positive and negative qualities.  Little did I know that almost 20 years later, I would unearth a whole new set of information regarding what his family and he did before he came to London.

I am glad that I decided to do this research because it has helped me to better understand him, and how London society operated at the time he lived here.

Part Two - Bibliography

Deleary, K. (2001, March 8).  Troubled Times on Turtle Island.  Scene Magazine, p. 6.

Eldon House.  (2020, November 23).  Eldon House/History.  Retrieved from Eldon House:

Eldon House diaries: five women's views of the 19th century.  (1994).  Toronto: The Champlain Society in cooperation with the Province of Ontario.

Peterson, L. (2003).  Amelia at the Forks of Ayzhkanzeebee: Propriety and Passion.  In J Culbert, Ballyhoo 2001: Plays from London, Ontario (pp. 148-168).  [London, Ontario?]: Virtual E Solved.

Peterson, L. (2005).  Amelia Harris (1798-1882).  In M Baker, & H B Neary, 100 Fascinating Londoners (p. 21).  Toronto: James Lorimer & Company.

Peterson, L. (2005).  John Wilson (1809-1869).  In M Baker, & H B Neary, 100 Fascinating Londoners (pp. 12-13).  Toronto: James Lorimer & Company.

Tuesday, 8 December 2020

Part One of Three - John Baptist Askin (1788-1869) - His Connection to London, Ontario, Canada

Part One - Disclaimer: My references to the writings of other people--including Indigenous, Non-Indigenous and African American--do not in any way imply that they share my views on this matter.  The opinions expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily represent those of my family, friends or associates.

Part One - Acknowledgements: A number of people--in London, Ontario, Canada and elsewhere--assisted me in the development of this three-part post series, not only in terms of the content, but also with technological matters relating to Google Blogger's new interface.  Because of the controversial nature of some aspects of the subject matter, I have concluded it is probably best not to thank them all here.  Their help was deeply appreciated, but any errors or omissions are mine.

Part One - Note: The photo I took in 2000 of John Baptist Askin's grave at the Woodland Cemetery is used with the permission of the cemetery.

Part One - Introduction - "'Colonel' to his Friends, 'Indian' to His Detractors"

The "'Colonel' to his friends, 'Indian' to his detractors" quotation is from an April 27, 1968 London Free Press article by L N Bronson (1905-1994).  Bronson was referring to Metis office holder, John Baptist Askin (aka Jean-Baptiste Askin, Jean Baptist Askin and Johnny Askin).  Askin (1788-1869) was a member of the London elite from the time he came to the city in 1832 until his passing.  Bronson was correct that Londoners either praised or denounced him.

Askin's military contributions during the War of 1812 have been documented by not only Non-Indigenous historians such as J J Talman (1904-1993) but also by Metis historian Lawrence J Barkwell (1943-2019).  In 2012, the Metis Nation of Ontario included Baptist Askin in their War of 1812 commemoration material.

London, Ontario fine artist Greg Curnoe (1936-1992) had an entry for Baptist Askin in his Deeds/Nations (1996)--a book (published posthumously) about Southwestern Ontario history from 1750 to 1850.  It featured the contributions of Aboriginal people to the region during this period.

Part One - Askin Family Chart

Since the Askin family genealogy is quite complex, I prepared the chart below:

Askin Family Chart

Part One - Baptist Askin's Indigenous Ancestry

According to Baptist Askin's London Daily Advertiser obituary, his mother was a "full-blooded" Indian. . .of one of the far western Indian tribes."  The obit also said he "took great pride in his descent from the original lords of the forest."

An "Askin Network" chart in John Clarke's Land, Power and Economics on the Frontier of Upper Canada (2001), indicates that Baptist Askin's father, John Askin Jr (1762-1820) had a relationship with an "Indian woman," and Baptist Askin was their son.

Milo M Quaife edited the John Askin Papers, published in 1928 (volume 1, 1747-1795) and 1931 (volume 2, 1796-1820).  He said that Baptist Askin's mother may have been a Non-Indigenous captive.  This information likely led J J Talman to state in his Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry that the "maternal ancestry is uncertain."

Quaife also noted that Baptist Askin was baptized a few weeks after Askin Jr's marriage to Madelaine (nee Pelletier) in October 1791.  Madelaine was French and also possibly Metis.

Askin Jr and his wife Madelaine are recognized by some in the Metis communities for their introduction of the Mackinaw cloth in 1811.  At the time, Askin Jr was a fur trader in Fort St Joseph.  This British outpost was located on St Joseph's Island on Lake Huron near Sault Ste Marie, Ontario.  Madelaine and the Metis women at the fort supplied the 10th Royal Veterans Battalion with "Mackinaw Coats" to replace their worn-out military attire.  The women used red plaid dense water-repellant woolen cloth.  The term "Mac" was eventually recognized as a Canadian symbol of working class values.

Although sources differ as to whether Madelaine had some Indigenous ancestry, Baptist Askin's paternal grandmother Mannette (aka Manette or Monette) is widely believed to be Indigenous from the Ottawa (aka Odawa) tribe.  Mannette will be discussed in more detail later in this post.

Part One - Why I am Interested in Baptist Askin and His Ancestors

One of the main reasons I decided to write this post is because I was interested in learning more about Baptist Askin's background.  In the early 2000s, I had a one-act play produced in which the two characters discussed him.

Then in 2010, an historian friend provided me with some information about his paternal grandfather and father, that made me want to delve more deeply.  She explained that Askin Sr (1739-1815) and Jr had engaged in questionable land transactions with Indigenous groups, and that Askin Sr kept Indigenous and Black slaves.

I wanted to better understand why Baptist Askin achieved a fair measure of success in London, yet his ancestry was mired in controversy.

I concluded from the additional research I did this year (2020) that his story is complex and not easily slotted into a particular category.  This also applies to his grandfather and father.  The time period in which the Askin family operated was one of tremendous political, cultural and racial upheaval.  They often chose their alliances based on what they believed would get them over the next hurdle, rather than what would be seen as ideologically appropriate by today's standards.

Part One - John Askin Sr (1739-1815) and John Askin Jr (1762-1820)

Askin Sr helped establish British rule in Upper Canada through his work as a fur trader and merchant.  He was born in Augnacloy, Northern Ireland.  In 1758, he moved with the British army to Albany, New York.  He followed the army, selling provisions to the soldiers (sutler).  However, he did not have much success commercially.

Consequently, in 1763, he went to Michilimackinac, which is located on the southern shore of the Lakes Huron and Michigan juncture.  There he operated a trading post and was more successful, remaining until 1775.

In 1781, Askin Sr relocated to Detroit.  His involvement with the Miami Company ended with a 1786 bankruptcy.  But he had developed an extensive network of family, friends and associates who supported him through his various financial upheavals.

Throughout this period, Askin Sr negotiated with Indigenous tribes to convince them to side with the British instead of the French.  This was often a difficult task because the French were usually more generous in their terms than the British.  There were regular intercultural exchanges (including intermarriage) between the French and the Indians.  The British were generally more standoffish and not as generous in negotiations.

It is possible Askin Sr realized that in order to gain the support of the Aboriginal groups, he should do something to win their trust.  This was possibly his motivation for purchasing the "Indian slave" Mannette.  She is believed to be the mother of his three oldest children, John Jr (Baptist Askin's father), Catherine and Madelaine, who were born during the 1762 to 1764 period.  This "marriage" gave Askin Sr credibility in Indigenous communities, and he used this perception to acquire land from them.

Quaife said it was a "matter of record" that Askin Jr was born in L'Arbre Croche, which was an Ottawa Indigenous town (now the site of Harbor Springs, Michigan).  

Tiya Miles is an African American historian, who has some Indigenous ancestry on her father's side.  She consulted the Askin Papers in the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library, when she was researching her book The dawn of Detroit: a chronicle of slavery and freedom in the city of the straits (2017).  Miles thinks "Mannette" was "probably Ottawa from a nearby village."

Clarke said that because Askin Jr was "mixed blood" and fluent in the "Ottawa and Chippewa languages" he was sometimes sent to negotiate with Indigenous groups.

On September 9, 1776, Askin Sr freed his "Panisse slave" (Mannette).  Miles concluded, since all correspondence with Mannette stopped after that, she might have thought her best option was to completely cut off contact with her former owner and three young children.  However, Quaife thought another possibility was that she passed away.

In 1772, Askin Sr married Marie-Archange (aka Marthe-Archange) Barthe, whose ancestry was French.  Her father was a well-known Detroit trader.  The children by Mannette stayed with the second wife, in a "household served by Indian and black bondspeople."  Askin and Barthe had nine children.

Askin Sr's freeing of Mannette was certainly not common among British slaveholders in Detroit.  Quaife, Talman and other historians have noted that Askin Sr treated his part-Indigenous children the same as he did his other nine offspring.  For instance, Askin Jr was educated in Montreal for several years before his father helped him find employment.

However, Askin Sr continued to own slaves after Mannette departed.  In a 1776 inventory of his slaves, he said he had two Black men, two Indian boys and two Panis "wenches."  He included a price for each of these individuals held in bondage.

In his May 18, 1778 letter to M Beausoleil, he said he needed "two pretty panis girls of from 9 to 16 years of age."

In 1787, Askin Sr had eight slaves, four who were Black, two Panis and two children of an unspecified race.

It is possible that at least some of the Indigenous women slaves Askin Sr had in his household were sexually exploited by him or others.

Askin Sr's land transactions with Indigenous tribes were particularly suspect during the 1796 period.  For further information about his often questionable handling of Indigenous lands, I recommend looking at the previously mentioned Miles and Clarke books.

In 1802, Askin Sr moved to Sandwich in Upper Canada to manage the Western District.

Part One - Baptist Askin - Brief Biographical Sketch

Baptist Askin was born in Detroit.  He served on the side of the British during the War of 1812.  On January 22, 1813, he led a small band of Indigenous people to defend Major-General Isaac Brock at the Battle of River Raisin (aka the Battle of Frenchtown) in a section of what is now Monroe, Michigan.  That battle ended before he and the band arrived, but he later served as a Metis interpreter for Colonel Henry Proctor.

When the Rebellion of 1837 broke out, Baptist Askin took action to suppress William Lyon Mackenzie and his followers.  He destroyed the press and type of the St Thomas Liberal newspaper.  In 1838, he was promoted to colonel.

Baptist Askin married Elisa Van Allen in 1814; the couple had eight children.  They settled in Vittoria, Norfolk County, Upper Canada, where he held various official positions.  In 1832, the family moved to London after the district court was transferred there.  He established himself as a prominent resident, with a mansion called "Woodview," in an area now called Wortley Village.  He was a major force behind the establishment of the town's Mechanics Institute and was also president of the Middlesex Agricultural Society for 30 years.  In addition, he held a number of official positions in London, including clerk of the peace.  The "London Elite" which included the Harrises of Eldon House, considered Askin to be one of their own.

There are four reminders of Colonel Askin in Wortley Village.  The jog in Elmwood Avenue follows the lane that led up to his estate.  Askin Street bears his name, plus Cynthia and Teresa Streets, which branch off from Askin, are named after his daughters.

The Daily Advertiser obituary praised him as "the most extensively known citizen in Western Ontario. . .mourned by a large circle of warm personal friends as well as sorrowing members of his family."

Part One - Baptist Askin's Grave, Woodland Cemetery, London, Ontario, 2000

Below is a photo I took of Baptist Askin's grave in 2000:

The Ivey Family London Room supplied the information below in September 2010.  

The grave is located in Row 30, Stone 5.  The inscription reads:

In memory of Col. John Askin (April 10, 1788-November 14, 1869), his wife Elizabeth (January 20, 1792-November 24 1872)

Part One - Conclusion

Although there is no concrete evidence to back it up, Askin Sr's correspondence points to a disparaging attitude towards some Panis women, particularly young ones.  He also referred a couple of times to Madelaine, an escaped Black woman slave, as a "wench."

Yet, as previous mentioned, Askin Sr looked after his children by Mannette.  He ensured they were educated, that they married into what he considered to be respectable families, and that they were "reared to civilization."  Askin Sr mostly raised Baptist Askin, probably because Askin Jr was so busy living and working outside of Detroit.

One possible reason for this varying treatment of Indigenous women is that Askin Sr recognized Mannette's knowledge of Indigenous culture and languages was valuable to his fur trading business.  Aboriginal traders were also influenced by his access to alcohol.

There were many skeletons in Baptist Askin's closet, but he left his mark on London.  He was both a colonel and an Indian at a very tumultuous time.

Part One - End Note #1: Terminology for Indigenous People Used in This Post

There are many ways Indigenous people describe themselves, e.g., tribal, cultural and legal.  Sometimes Aboriginal communities changed their names because the terms originally used for them could be considered derogatory.  On other occasions, they replaced names given to them by Europeans with their traditional ones.  Historical developments have also influenced what they call themselves.

Indian still has a specific meaning under the terms of the Canadian government's 1876 Indian Act, which is still in effect.  Although some Indigenous people object to the use of the term Indian, other recognize its legal implications.  Since most of the contents of this post takes place when Indian was the term commonly used, it is employed when appropriate to the context.

For further information about Indian and other terms relating to Indigenous people, please refer to Section B of my April 18, 2018 post about cultural misappropriation, which can be found elsewhere on this blog.

Panis (aka Panisse or panis) appears in this post but was not discussed in my April 18, 2018, Section B entry.  From about the 1670s to the 1830s, enslaved Indigenous people in the New World were often referred to as Panis.  The word appears to have originated in New France, but its use spread to the British and American revolutionaries.  However, this term can mean several different things, including Pawnee, which is a Central Plains Indigenous tribe located in Oklahoma, United States.  Because Panis can have several different connotations, I will only use it when it is clearly understood to mean an Indigenous slave.

Part One - End Note #2: Terminology for Geographical Locations in Canada and the United States

At various times between 1739 and 1867, Indigenous groups, France, Britain, American revolutionaries, Canada and the United States held the balance of power in the geographical locations discussed here.  This was particularly the case with Detroit.  It would be complicated and time-consuming to explain all these historical transformations.  If you are interested in learning more, please consult Canadian and American reference sources, and the bibliography.

However, I will point out the United States declared its independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776, followed by the March 11, 1781 confederation.  Canada became a confederation on July 1, 1867.

Part One - End Note #3: London, 1800-1855

London was part of Upper Canada from 1741 until 1841, when the name changed to Canada West.  The British North America (BNA) Act of 1867 led to the creation of the province of Ontario, which is still the case today.  Ontario was one of four provinces that made up the newly created Canada.

The district of London was proclaimed in 1800.  An 1826 provincial bill led to the forks of the Thames becoming the administrative and legal centre of the London district.  London became a town in 1840 and a city in 1855.

Part One - Bibliography

Banersee, M.  (2018, February 19).  Detroit's dark secret: slavery.  Retrieved from Michigan Today:

Barkwell, L.  (2014, January 13).  Mackinaw Jackets.  Retrieved from Gabriel Dumont Institute:

Barkwell, L J.  (2013, December 10).  Jean-Baptiste Askin.  Retrieved from Gabriel Dumont Institute:

Boyd, H.  (2017, December 15).  A book that will make you rethink slavery and the north.  Retrieved from Washington Post:

Brock, D J.  (2011).  Fragments from the Forks: London, Ontario's legacy.  London, Ontario: London & Middlesex Historical Society.

Bronson, L N. (1968, April 27).  Londoner cousin of famed historian.  London Free Press, p M9.

Campbell, C T. (1921).  Pioneer days in London.  London, Ontario: Advertiser Job Printing Company.

Cangany, C. (2019, October).  Dawn of Detroit [review].  Retrieved from Project Muse.

Clarke, J. (2001).  Land, Power and Economics on the Frontier of Upper Canada.  Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Curnoe, G.  (1996).  Deeds/Nations.  London, Ontario: London Chapter, Ontario Archeological Society.

Curnoe G. (2003).  Askin Street.  In M Baker and H B Neary, London Street Names (pp 9-10).  Toronto: James Lorimer & Company.

Death of Colonel Askin. (1869, November 15).  Daily Advertiser.

Farrell, D R. (1983).  Askin (Erskine), John.  Retrieved from Dictionary of Canadian Biography, volume 5:

Ferguson, W. (2000).  Canadian History for Dummies.  Toronto: Wiley Publishing.

Hughes, J, & Purdom T H.  (1912?).  History of the Bar of the County of Middlesex.  London, Ontario: Middlesex Historical Association.

London Public Library.  (2015, May 5).  McClella's Blog.  Retrieved from: From shoebox cards to scanned images:

Lutman, J H. (1979).  The South and West of London: An Historical and Architectural Guide.  London, Ontario: City of London.

McGuire, B. (1985, March 9).  Ask Les anything.  London Free Press.

Metis Nation of Ontario. (2012?).  Metis Role in 1812 Commemorated [reprint from Niagara This Week].  Retrieved from Metis Nation of Ontario:

Metis Nation of Ontario. (2012?).  Metis Voyageur - Metis & War of 1812 [announcement].  Retrieved from Metis Nation of Ontario:

Miles, T.  (2013, May/June).  Slavery in Early Detroit.  Michigan History, pp 33-37.

Miles, T. (2017).  The dawn of Detroit: a chronicle of slavery and freedom in the city of the straits.  New York: New Press.

Miles T. (2020, August 5).  Tiya Miles.  Retrieved from Tiya Miles:

Mills, D, Penneton, D, & McIntosh, A. (2020, May 22).  Family Compact.  Retrieved from Canadian Encyclopedia:

Mongrain, M. (2017, April 11).  The Mackinaw coat: a Canadian invention.  Retrieved from Parks Canada/Fort St Joseph National Historic Site:

Niagara This Week. (2012, July 25).  Metis' role in 1812 commemorated.  Retrieved from Niagara This Week:

Quaife, M M. (1928).  John Askin Papers, Volume 1: 1747-1795.  Retrieved from the University of Windsor:

Simner, M L. (2012).  The Heart of Wortley Village.  London, Ontario: London & Middlesex Historical Society.

Sokoi, J. (2017, November 21).  Detroit's untold stories of slavery.  Retrieved from New York Times:

Talman, J J. (1948, August 8).  Col. Askin Prominent Pioneer.  London Free Press.

Talman, J J. (1976).  Askin, John Baptist.  Retrieved May 2010, from Dictionary of Canadian Biography:

Tourism London.  (2020, March 24).  A brief history of London, Ontario.  Retrieved from Tourism London:

University of Windsor Archives.  (2020, September 5).  The life of John Askin.  Retrieved from University of Windsor Archives:

Wikipedia contributors.  (2018, April 20).  Mackinaw cloth.  Retrieved from Wikipedia:

Wikipedia contributors.  (2019, November 20).  John Askin Jr.  Retrieved from Wikipedia:

Wikipedia contributors.  (2020, March 4).  John Askin.  Retrieved from Wikipedia:

Wikipedia contributors.  (2020, June 20).  Lawrence J Barkwell.  Retrieved from Wikipedia:

Wikipedia contributors.  (2018, August 7).  Panis slaves of First Nations descent.  Retrieved from Wikipedia:

Sunday, 2 June 2019

NWT Metis Leader Nick Sibbeston - Bringing About Positive Changes to the Catholic Church/Indigenous Spirituality Relationship

Disclaimer:  My references to the writings of other people--both Indigenous and Non-Indigenous--do not in any way imply that they share my views on this matter.  The opinions expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of my family, friends or associates.

Note One:  The photos included with this post are by Rene Fumoleau (b. 1926), who has lived in the North for more than 50 years.  He has donated more than 15,000 images to the NWT Archives:  I can use the eight included here, with attribution, because this is my personal blog.  But including them does not imply in any way that he shares my opinions.  

If you want to look at more of Fumoleau's creations, go to the Fumoleau section of the NWT Archives site.

Note Two:  Around 2014, I instituted a policy regarding both my blogs that I do not include links to other people's websites or blogs on mine.  Consequently, you find information on how to locate the links (but not hyperlinks).  Further clarification can usually also be found in the bibliography.


I first became aware of Nick Sibbeston's memoir, "You Will Wear a White Shirt" (2015), when I read about it in a 2015 Northern News Services column by honorary Dene chief Cece Hodgson-McCauley (1922-2018).  The fact that Hodgson-McCauley made note of his memoir made me interested in reading it, because I frequently shared her honest and forthright opinions.

When she passed away in March 2018, Sibbeston was quoted in the press as saying she was "fearless, spirited, civic-minded [and].  . .just marvellous."  His praise provided yet another motivation.

I was also intrigued because Sibbeston was very much involved with Northwest Territories (NWT) politics both times I was in the capital city of Yellowknife.  My first time, May 1975 to October 1976, I was employed by the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories (IBNWT) in the library/central files area.  (The IBNWT became the Dene Nation in 1978.)  During my second time, November 1983-April 1987, I was employed by the Dene-Metis Negotiations Secretariat on library/archives matters.  Both times I trained Dene/Metis people.

For most of the 1970s to the early 1990s, Sibbeston was an elected member of the NWT's Legislative Assembly.  Although I do not believe I ever met him, I was very much aware of what he was up to because he frequently pushed for, or helped enact, major changes to territorial policy.  During the time he was premier, 1985-1987, his trailblazing initiatives accelerated.

Nick Sibbeston at Fort Good Hope Dene National Assembly, July 1980 (cropped, edited)

Preliminary Comments about "You Will Wear a White Shirt"

"You Will Wear a White Shirt" covers Sibbeston's early life in his home community of Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories (NWT).  He then discusses his negative, but occasionally positive, experiences at residential schools, not only in Simpson, but also in Fort Providence, Fort Smith, Inuvik and Yellowknife.

He then talks about his schooling at the University of Alberta (UofA), along with his marriage, family and work with the NWT government.  We also learn about his business initiatives, his UofA law degree, and his work in the Senate.  His memoir was published in 2015 when he was still a senator.  In November 2017, on his 74th birthday, he resigned because he wanted to spend more time on other matters that were of interest to him.

For brevity's sake, I will be concentrating on his political contributions, particularly during the time I was in Yellowknife.  But what interests me the most is that he has returned to Fort Simpson, and, along with his wife Karen, is helping to re-establish the Sacred Heart Catholic Church.  He believes the solution to the numerous historical conflicts between the Dene and the church, is to incorporate more Dene practices into the liturgy.  Consequently, he is in the process of translating the Catholic Mass into one of the Dene languages, called Slavey.

Despite the fact that Sibbeston explores a lot of difficult topics in this book, I did not find it a chore to read; it was like he was having a conversation with me.  And his honesty is refreshing; it is not an "it's all the White man's fault" Indigenous narrative.  For instance, he freely acknowledges where he has benefitted from his interactions with Non-Aboriginals.  But he also articulates how many aspects of colonization and the residential schools failed him and other Indigenous people.

He is not a proponent of the far-leftist, anti-development, absolutist rhetoric which I contend frequently stifles public discourse on what happens in the NWT.  Consequently, he is not afraid to state an unpopular opinion, if that is his true conviction.

For instance, in 2005, he opposed the expansion of Nahanni National Park because "Aboriginal people. . .need money to run their governments and the mineral and fossil resources to create jobs for their people."  He distributed a "Nahanni Forever?" newsletter to every NWT household, which laid out his arguments.  This newsletter provoked both applause and condemnation.

I agree with him that Aboriginal people need to be actively involved in business, both as individuals and through development corporations.  He is right that "[t]raditional economies are insufficient to support growing populations and are often quite marginal.  Only through wealth creation can sustainable communities be built."

However, he also recognizes that development has to be responsible and not harm the environment.  He is very concerned about how climate change in the NWT is contributing to "erratic weather and earlier open water."  He plans to be insistent that something be done about it.

Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson, who succeeded Sibbeston as NWT premier, recommended Sibbeston's book for its insights into the history of the NWT's political development, and because it courageously told all.  I have found the book helpful for those exact same reasons.

Sibbeston's account of 1970s-1980s NWT happenings frequently transported me back to when I was living there.  This process has helped me to more fully understand what was going on behind the scenes when major territorial policy decisions were being made.  In addition, it has led me to conclude that I have three, albeit tenuous, connections to his life path.

Slave River, August 1982

My Three, Albeit Tenuous, Connections to Sibbeston's Life Path

- In Fort Simpson During the Passing of the Dene Declaration, July 1975

The first is that, on July 19, 1975, I was in Fort Simpson at the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories Joint General Assembly, when the Dene Declaration was passed (I was a recording secretary, know shorthand).  In his memoir, Sibbeston discusses the implications of this declaration.  Although I agree with him there have been positive developments as a result of its passing, I think there has also been a downside.  But I will leave that controversial topic for another day.

- At Yellowknife Airport When Pope John Paul II Spoke There, September 1984

Secondly, on September 18, 1984, I was at the Yellowknife airport when Pope John Paul II spoke to the crowd (including Dene and Metis leaders) gathered there.  The Pope was supposed to be in Fort Simpson, but the plane he was in could not land because of fog.  Nick's wife, Karen, was instrumental in convincing the Pope to come to Simpson, not only during the failed attempt in 1984, but the successful one in September 1987.

I have a circa 1984 booklet which the Roman Catholic Church commissioned in preparation for the Pope's visit.  It covers Fort Simpson's history from the 1800s to the 1980s.  In addition, there are interviews with Dene and Metis elders about both their positive and negative experiences with the church.  The booklet is entitled "Liidli Koe = Two Rivers of Faith (Fort Simpson, Denendeh)"  Further information can be found in the bibliography.  I will be discussing its contents in a bit more detail later in this post.

- My Parents, Jay Peterson (1920-1976) and Charles T. Peterson (1913-2007), Shared Nick and Karen's Interest in Religious Matters

The third is that my mother Jay Peterson (1920-1976) shared Nick and Karen's interest in religious matters.  Mom was raised in a number of different Protestant religions, and said she benefitted from this diversity.  She also believed in learning from other cultures.  During the 1960s, she helped organize religious art exhibitions at First-St. Andrew's United Church in London, Ontario.  These exhibitions included not just Judeo-Christian, but also Muslim "Art and Artifacts."

It is therefore not surprising that when I was growing up, Mom encouraged me to explore a variety of cultural and spiritual experiences beyond that of the United Church.  I went to Catholic Mass, Jewish synagogue services, and Quaker "Friends' meetings.  In addition, I tagged along with her to Indigenous gatherings, such as the Indian Pageant at Six Nations of the Grand River.

To learn more about my mother, click on the "Jay Peterson" label in the right sidebar of my blog.

My father, Charles T. Peterson (1913-2007), frequently said it was important to believe in a higher power than oneself.  He was a long-time member of the United Church of Canada, right up until his final days.  He also shared many of my mother's interests, including regarding Indigenous issues.  His funeral program included Biblical passages and an "Iroquois prayer."

For further information about my father, click on the "Charles T. Peterson" label in the right sidebar of my blog.

I have inherited my parents' belief in reaching out to others across the cultural divide, so I applaud Sibbeston's Dene-cizing the church initiative.  I firmly believe the answer to much of the current racial strife often lies in hybridizing cultural systems instead of stressing their differences.  For further information regarding my views on this, see my April 18, 2018 cultural misappropriation post, which can be found elsewhere on this blog.

My cultural misappropriation research, along with my personal experiences, and my reading of Sibbeston's memoir, has made me acutely aware of many of the negative aspects of colonization.  But there were some positive aspects, such as some Indigenous people gaining marketable skills that benefitted them later in life.  Sibbeston noted many of the beneficial things he learned at some of the residential schools he attended.

It is also important to bear in mind that Indigenous cultures were not perfect before the White man came.  One of the interesting aspects of the "Two Rivers" publication is that it covers Dene and Metis elders' positive and negative experiences with, not only the church, but also with their own cultures.

My Narrative on Indigenous Issues Needs to be Considered in Context

In the ". . .Personal Journey" section of Part One of Three of my May 2016 series, I explained why I felt pressured to carry on my mother's involvement in Aboriginal issues after she passed away in December 1976.  The time period before, during and after her death was when Indigenous groups, including the Dene, were establishing a national presence, e.g., voicing opposition to the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, due to unsettled land claims.  Many of the people my mother had aligned herself with naturally hoped I would carry on where she left off.

But I had numerous concerns about this.  One of them was that I am very much an integrationist by nature.  I became more reticent as the "nation" concept increased in prominence.  Although I did not express these views openly at the time, I inwardly felt more would be gained if Indigenous people developed marketable skills that would help them become part of the mainstream economy.  However, I also realized that, at the same time, they needed to preserve, document and practise the positive aspects of their culture.

I knew my pro-mainstream views ran counter to what the "cause" was espousing.  Consequently, I masked my true feelings, and carried on with a "crusader zeal" which only made matters worse in the long run.  If you are interested in learning more about my inward/outward dilemma, read the ". . .Personal Journey" section.

Nevertheless, a beneficial aspect of my reluctant involvement was I wanted Indigenous people to run their own show.  This was why I was insistent that I train Aboriginal people to take over the work I was doing.  I did not want to be part of the process on a permanent basis.  The advantage of it from an Indigenous perspective, particularly during Sibbeston's time as an MLA and premier, was that I was busy training Dene and Metis people to take over.  Since Sibbeston wanted more Indigenous people involved with decision-making, I am assuming he would have thought this was OK.

Fort Simpson - Dehcho-Liard River, 197-?

Sibbeston's Life Path: From Residential Schools to Senate to Simpson

I will first discuss Sibbeston's early years, his time at various residential schools, his university degrees and marriage, and his career in territorial politics and the Senate.  I will then talk about his healing journey, particularly during the 1985 to 2006 period.  Finally, I will get to the part that I am most interested in, his Dene-cizing of the church in Fort Simpson.

"idyllic" Early Years, 1943-1949

From his birth in November 1943, until the early fall of 1949, Sibbeston was raised in Fort Simpson.  His mother, Laura Sibbeston, had him out of wedlock, so he did not have a father.  Although Laura is Metis, she was raised as a Dene by her adopted parents.

Sibbeston and his mother lived with a Dene woman named Ehmbee, who Nick considered to be his grandmother.  Ehmbee could not speak Latin, French or English, but she faithfully brought Nick to Catholic Mass every Sunday.  He considered these church experiences to be ". . .distant--like another world."

Despite his misgivings about church services, he described his early years as "idyllic. . .[a] young boy could not have asked for a better upbringing."

Residential Schools Attendance, 1949-1964

Sibbeston's mother developed tuberculosis (TB) and had to go south to hospital.  Consequently, in the fall of 1949, he was sent to the Fort Providence residential school.  Although his mother returned from her hospital stay around 1955, she eventually moved to Hay River.  She wanted to live in a place that had the southern amenities she had grown accustomed to during her illness.

From 1955 to 1964, Sibbeston attended residential schools in Fort Simpson, Inuvik and Yellowknife.  The negative aspects of this schooling became more apparent to him during the 1980s--I will have more to say about this in the "Healing Journey" section below.

But there were some positive aspects to his education.  He gained valuable academic skills, such as reading, writing and arithmetic.  At Fort Smith's Grandin College, he had some excellent teachers.  In addition, he enjoyed playing hockey and basketball.

University of Alberta and Marriage

In the fall of 1964, Sibbeston started his studies at the Faculty of Education, University of Alberta.  Some of his high school teachers had encouraged him to continue learning, so he thought perhaps he would emulate them and become a teacher.

He attended four classes with Karen Benoit, "a beautiful girl from Lloydminister, Alberta."  She did not drink and enjoyed liquor-free activities, particularly dancing.

Sibbeston got along well with Karen's family.  Her father was an "uprooted Acadian farmer," and her mother was of British background.  Karen was the fifth eldest of their 17 children.

During the fall and winter of 1967-1968, Nick and Karen worked as supervisors at Breynat Hall in Fort Smith.  Sibbeston became friends with the Breynat administrator, Fr. Camille Piche.  It was Piche who performed Nick and Karen's marriage ceremony at a Lloydminster church on August 17, 1968.

I appreciated Sibbeston's honesty about the "phenomenon" of Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal people "getting together" frequently in the North.  My experience has been that this topic is often taboo, even though it is so prevalent.  He also said this intermingling "certainly stirs up the gene pool and creates a good breed of people."  You do not hear this observation very often from Indigenous people, even though I believe this hybridity is often beneficial.

in the summer of 1969, Glen, the first of Nick and Karen's six children, was born.  Nick received his Bachelor of Arts in April 1970, and became secretary-manager of the hamlet of Fort Simpson that fall.

Kakisa Lake, river, village, June 1978

Sibbeston's Years in Territorial Politics, 1970-1975, 1979-1991

In December 1970, Sibbeston was elected MLA for Mackenzie-Liard.  After he lost the 1975 election, he decided to pursue a law degree at the University of Alberta.  He became the first Indigenous lawyer born and raised in the NWT.  In 1979, he was re-elected and remained in territorial politics until 1991.  From 1985 to 1987, he became the second Aboriginal NWT premier.

"You don't get anything done by writing nice letters and speaking calmly"

In his book "Arctic Revolution" (1994), John David Hamilton (1919-2009) said Sibbeston was ". . . a very different kind of personality. . .who was constantly ruffling feathers."  I know exactly what Hamilton meant by this.

Sibbeston was determined to bring more recognition for Dene rights and culture in the assembly "both practically and symbolically."  He objected to the militaristic, Westminster style of government procedures, which paid almost no attention to "Northern culture."

I burst out laughing when he said ". . .you don't get anything done by writing nice letters, and speaking calmly.  You have to slam the table and often raise your voice. . ."

Early 1980s Incidents That Don't Fit into the "Speaking Calmly" Category.

I was not in Yellowknife when the following four early 1980s incidents occurred, but I certainly remember public debates and media reports about them.

- When the 1982 budget and subsequent assembly discussions on the matter of Dene languages failed to provide more funds for this purpose, Sibbeston spoke in Slavey.  The proceedings "ground to a halt," and "[e]veryone looked bewildered, moving uneasily in their seats." This led to the Speaker recessing the house for a caucus meeting.  At this meeting, Sibbeston got his wish to have an interpreter when he spoke in his language.

- During the 1982 winter session, in reply to the commissioner's speech, he removed his suit and tie, and put on a fur-trimmed moose-hide jacket, adorned with beadwork.  He encouraged his Dene and Metis colleagues to do the same in future, rather than be shackled to the government's "suits and oxfords" rules.

- February 17, 1982: Sibbeston devoted about five pages of his memoir to before, during and after his hitting Inuk MLA, Tagak Curley, on the side of the head with his fist.  For this, he was suspended from the house for the rest of the day.  He apologized the next.  There are complicated reasons for why this dustup occurred.  I recommend reading the book to get more insight.  Sibbeston said in his office he had a "framed editorial cartoon" of himself, fiercely making a point in the assembly, with a hockey-helmet-wearing Curley looking on.

- A few weeks after his "round with Tagak," he caused a stir in the assembly again by throwing a coffee cup in the direction of the chair, Peter Fraser.  The cup broke into pieces and the room fell silent.  Before he headed out to the lobby, Sibbeston said he was resigning.  Commissioner John Parker told him to go home and talk with his constituents.  When he returned to Simpson, he was treated like a hero and told he should throw more cups.

Later in life, Sibbeston concluded that his "political passion to see right was done" for Indigenous people was definitely connected to the trauma of his residential schools years.

But outside of the "assembly ropes," he could be "the picture of cooperation and collaboration."  By 1986, he had garnered mostly positive reviews for his work as minister and government leader.

1983-1987 - "Great Progress and Achievement" in the NWT

As Sibbeston states in his memoir ". . .1983 to 1987 was one of great progress and achievement in the Northwest Territories."  I can attest to the truthfulness of this because I was an eye witness to it.

Among the NWT milestones when Sibbeston was premier (1985-1987) were:

- Aboriginal employment in the territorial government increased from 17 to 26 per cent.  This included appointing "strong Aboriginal people into senior positions."

- Implementation of the Official Languages Act, 1984.  English and French had full official status, along with official recognition of the seven Aboriginal languages.

- The NWT Pavilion at Expo 86 in Vancouver, British Columbia was one of the most popular Expo attractions.  Inuk MLA, Tagak Curley, among others, helped to make the pavilion a success.  It brought in more than a million dollars during its sixth-month operation.

- National political and constitutional meetings included the NWT's involvement.

Of course, all these major changes were bound to rub some people the wrong way.  Sibbeston acknowledged that "MLAs and the media did not always agree with my decisions or actions."

I remember the shock in Yellowknife when Sibbeston terminated a number of Non-Aboriginal bureaucrats, and replaced them with Indigenous people.  His actions were a huge departure from the federal government's longstanding assimilationist policy.

Blueberry, n.d.

Dene and Metis Divisions

I share Sibbeston's disappointment with the breakdown of the Dene and Metis land claims process.  For about three years after I left Yellowknife, I had some NWT publications mailed to me, because I wanted to follow what was going on.  I was not surprised when the Dene-Metis Negotiations Secretariat shut down in November 1990.

I agree with Sibbeston that one of the factors contributing to the breakdown was the 1984 Inuvialuit Final Agreement.  The Inuvialuit (Western Arctic Inuit) obtained both extensive surface and limited subsurface rights to renewable resources in their region.  As Sibbeston points out, this settlement has contributed substantially to improving the social and economic well-being of its inhabitants.

The Dene regions near the Inuvialuit, and the Southern Metis, could see the benefits of settling.  But the southern Dene wanted to hold out for a better deal.  Unfortunately, this deferral has led to a far more complex negotiations process.  Although some claims are settled, there are still regional, and even community-level claims, in process.

I do understand why Indigenous communities would want to hold out for a better deal, but I fret about the impact the decades-long process is having on the NWT's economy.  Since July 2015, I have had a subscription to Northern News Services, which covers happenings in the NWT.  It makes me very sad to see how many problems there are, not only in Yellowknife, but also in many of the communities.  Unemployment, addiction and crime are at record levels.  I realize there are complex reasons for this, that are not entirely related to land claims or the economy.  But I suspect if the remaining claims are settled, it would lead to more certainty, not only for Northern residents, but also for potential investors.

Sibbeston believes the breakdown in the Dene and Metis claims process has had some negative impacts in the Western Arctic.  He said "[t]he complexity of the regulatory system is due, at least in part, to the patchwork implementation of land claims."

But he also realizes that economic development in the NWT must not be of the "boom and bust" variety.  In 2012, he helped draft a report which set out a "vision for development that is both progressive and sustainable."

Lutsei K'e - backlit silhouette - Dandelion, 197-?

Sibbeston''s Healing Journey, circa 1985 to 2006

Throughout his "young adult life," Sibbeston drank, partied and chased women.  This behaviour continued for a long time after his marriage.

When he was in territorial politics, particularly when he was government leader, he also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and mild depression.  As his self-destructive and mental health issues took an increasing toll on his personal and family life, he realized he had to get help.

Through "counsellling and self-reflection" he concluded that the six years he spent at the Fort Providence residential school, without seeing his mother, were the "most traumatic" period of his life.  He was teased because he was fairer than the other boys, he was sexually assaulted by an older Aboriginal boy, and he was "treated cruelly by the nuns."

His wife Karen's "love and forgiveness," and his "faith in God" were what saved him.  Despite his negative experiences with the church, he has been able to move past his resentment.  He now advocates that the church incorporate Dene cultural practices into the liturgy.  I will have more to say about this "Dene-cizing" in the section below about his work at the Fort Simpson church.

Sibbeston regained his well-being by quitting drinking in 1985 and by attending Marriage Encounter sessions with Karen.  In 2006, he was inspired by Margaret Trudeau's account of her struggles with mental illness, and got further help from an Ottawa psychiatrist.

Christianity and Indigenous Spirituality Finding Common Ground in Quite a Few Indigenous Communities in Canada

Although you would not know it by reading many mainstream media accounts, Christianity and Indigenous Spirituality are finding common ground in quite a few places in this country.  Statistics Canada's 2011 National Household Survey found that two out of three Aboriginal Canadians consider themselves Christian, although their church attendance was not necessarily on a regular basis.

Since about 2006, I have maintained a file of articles on this Christian/Indigenous Spirituality hybridity.  Rather than cite all these items, I suggest interested readers do an online search for "Christian" and "Indigenous" or "Aboriginal."  Canadian journalist, Douglas Todd, has written about this topic a number of times, so you could do an online search of his name, along with the other keywords.

Consequently, Sibbeston's work combining the Indigenous with the Christian at the Sacred Heart Church in Fort Simpson is part of a trend to be found elsewhere.

Fort Simpson - Sun. - Trees, March 8, 1986

Sibbeston's London, Ontario Veritas Lecture, September 22, 2016

On September 22, 2016, Sibbeston gave a presentation entitled "Incorporating Indigenous Spirituality into Church Liturgy and Practice."  His contribution, which was sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph, was part of the Veritas Series for Faith and Culture.  This hour-plus event took place at King's University College in London, Ontario.

I am sorry I missed this lecture in my hometown, but fortunately a video of the proceedings is available for viewing online.  For further information, see the bibliography.

Sibbeston referred to his early years sitting on his grandmother Ehmbee's knee at the church.  He said almost all of the services were in Latin or French.  Ehmbee would "lighten up" when the priest occasionally spoke in Dene.

In more recent years, the services have been conducted in English, but he thought a greater number of Dene people would attend if their culture was more part of the service.  It has been a challenge for him to translate the liturgy into Slavey because many of the concepts are not based on matters the Dene are familiar with.  But he believes it is worth the effort, so that what is actually going on is understood.

Re-Establishment of the Sacred Heart Church in Fort Simpson

As Sibbeston explained during the London, Ontario lecture, the Fort Simpson community came together to make sure the church was re-established.  The original church, which was built in 1923, had to close in October 2009 because it was structurally unsound.

When the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith Bishop, Mark Hagemoen, visited Fort Simpson in 2013, he concluded that now was the time to rebuild.  At that point, local parishioners had raised $300,000 towards the church, through bake sales, bottle drives, and other fund-raising initiatives.

Hagemoen managed to secure the remaining funding and support from the Archdioceses of Edmonton and Hamilton, as well as Catholic Missions in Canada.

On September 17, 2017, the new $1.3 million Sacred Heart Church opened.  Some of the items in the new structure had been saved from the old, including the baptismal font, made of local diamond willow.

When the consecration Mass was over, a special service was held at the site of Pope John Paul II's September 20, 1987 visit.

Days before the church opening, Hagemoen had been appointed the new Bishop of Saskatoon, so he greeted the consecration of the new parish with mixed emotions.

During the opening, Sibbeston was quoted as saying "if we could Dene-cize the Church, we could use our language and we could have songs in our language, people will come back."

On Sundays, he, along with other parishioners, translates the Mass into Dene.  Drumming is often part of the service.  The offerings are collected in a birch-bark basket and a moose-hide blanket.

Ndilo - Rene's house - Northern Lights, March 1971


As mentioned in the "Healing Journey" section above, Sibbeston said he was saved by "Karen's love and forgiveness" and his 'faith in God."  His faith came from his grandmother Ehmbee, who attended church every Sunday, and who "lived a life of kindness, gentleness and love."

I think Karen deserves extensive praise for her patience and understanding during her husband's trials and tribulations.  And I strongly suspect Ehmbee is beaming down from heaven at the good work her grandson is doing.


Catholic Missions in Canada. (2016, October 14).  Sacred Heart Church in Fort Simpton, Northwest Territories.  Retrieved from Catholic Missions in Canada:

CBC News. (2017, September 21).  N.W.T. Senator Nick Sibbeston resigns.  Retrieved from CBC News:

Cooke, L, & Piche, C. (1984?).  Liidli Koe = Two Rivers of Faith (Fort Simpson, Denendeh).  Yellowknife? Native Communications Society of the Western NWT.

DeGroot, P.  (1984, September 19).  Yellowknife residents delighted by papal visit.  Edmonton Journal.

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Sibbeston, N. (2015).  You Will Wear a White Shirt.  Madiera Park, BC, Douglas & McIntyre.

Sibbeston, N. (2016, September 22).  Incorporating Indigenous Spirituality into Church Liturgy and Practice.  Retrieved from King's University College: https:www.kings.uwo/ca/campus-ministry

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