Lines on the Shore: Stories from the Border of an Island Indian Reserve

On the north shore of Gchi Nme Mnissing, “The Great Sturgeon Island” (and otherwise known as Beausoleil First Nation or Christian Island), is the Big Sand Bay. It’s an arcing black and tan beach flanked by cedar trees and Muskoka chairs. From below the sand is consumed by the clear and bright breaking waves of Georgian Bay. It’s a feast overseen by cottagers, visitors, who through a legal and economic deal with the First Nation and federal government occupy this and many of the Island’s sand beaches during the summer months.

Before the ancestors arrived on the coast another people called it home. To the Huron it was Gahoendoe. They spent their brief time on the shore trying to trade with the Anishinaabeg in the north and building St. Marie II, a Jesuit mission promising shelter from the Nahdoway at the end of the seventeenth-century war. Across the bay to the east those Nahdoway camped on the limestone shelf known as Cedar Ridge, presiding over Huron gloom. Today you can see St. Marie II when arriving at the Island by boat. It’s that pile of rocks beside the school.

The ice comes and goes. For a few years there will be none and then a period of low and cold water that freezes thick enough to walk, snowmobile and eventually drive across. It is a freedom rarely taken for granted. In the old days of the early spring, people used to hop from iceberg to iceberg to work or school. Last winter there were two roads. The first cracked and flooded, the second lasted the duration. Over the years men have set out from one shore but fell short of the other, down through the ice in their Chevy or Ford.

The white stone can be blinding on sunny days. A beacon on the southern peninsula of the Island, the lighthouse stands nearly six stories tall. It is one of the six so-called Imperial Lighthouses built throughout Lake Huron. It was the first constructed, completed in 1857 (the same year the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes of Canada Act was passed). This imperial light guided mid-to-late nineteenth century imperial traders and fisherman up and down the coast, past the Island to somewhere else. Do not crash on these dark shores. During the Great War the army came and stripped the lighthouse of its steel.

On the trip west from Coldwater-Narrows, that first failure of a reserve experiment in Canada, the Catholics and Anglicans who joined the Ojibwe (many of them Catholics and Anglicans as well) granted themselves the privilege of naming. They called the three Islands, which now comprise the reserve, Charity, Faith and Hope. My father’s ashes mingle with the dunes of Faith. On Charity, bodies from elsewhere sometimes wash ashore. There were two corpses last spring. The couple that discovered the second thought it was an odd shaped white boulder until they didn’t.

Aside from occasional ice, there are no roads to and from Gchi Nme Mnissing, just The Boat. There have been many boats over the years: The Quinte, The Upper Canada and The R.A. Hoey. Hoey was an Indian Affairs bureaucrat, an enforcer of the residential in residential schools and champion of selective human breeding. Today it’s the MV Sandy Graham trekking across a dozen times a day. Alexander (Sandy) Graham was a North Carolina democrat and public servant. His namesake is 60 years old now and spends at least a few weeks a year getting patched up in one shipyard or another. But it is the lifeline for women who haul food and children between shores.

After being pushed out of their territory in what is now Wisconsin, a group of Bodawatomi came north. They helped defend what was becoming Canada in the War of 1812 and then searched for a new home. They reached the shores of the Island just before the Ojibwe who travelled from Coldwater. But the pious did not like these ones; too heathen, obstinate, and refusing to convert. And so they were banished to the eastern coast, eating raccoons and seagull eggs when they weren’t starving. Their descendants are keepers of ceremony still.

Just south of the dock, on the mainland side, there used to be a clearing in the bush close to the water. It was known as Toby’s Tavern. My grandfather would occasionally be there with friends, off the reserve and away from the restrictions of the Indian Act. Today it’s surrounded by million-dollar vacation homes that face the bay. Cottagers glimpsing the Island, holidays occasionally interrupted when the long dead pass freely through their concrete and siding. Here, lingering ghosts are as dependable as crashing waves and crumbling beach.

This article draws on stories from the Late Leon King, Gloria and Roseanne King, Larry Copegog, Valerie Monague, Roly Monague, Shelby King-Shawongonabe, Marla Monague and the Scott Family.