Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Pither's Point?

Last Friday morning, early, I went for a walk along the shore of Rainy Lake. The sun had washed the sky pink, there was still a bit of ice along the shoreline, only one couple walking 3 dogs passed me, and the sound of birds recently back from more southerly climes filled the bay. The day before, I had driven up to Fort Frances to teach classes at the Nanicost Institute, which is housed in the former Indian Residential school, St. Marguerite's, on Couchiching First Nations. Indian Residential schools were a previous Canadian government policy in cooperation with institutionalized Christianity to "kill the Indian in the child." I took this photo from what is now called Pither's Point, looking southwards across Rainy Lake towards what is now called International Falls, U.S.A. Rainy Lake empties into Rainy River at this point. Living on the shore of Lake Superior, I'm used to seeing rivers flow into the lake, so, standing on the point, I was struck by what seemed to be the "backward" flow of the waters. Were my eyes playing tricks on me? No, Rainy Lake empties into the river, as it is part of the Arctic watershed.

But why is this breathtaking point where the waters meet and the birds call called Pither's Point? The answer: colonization. I was surprised to see that there is still a street called Colonization Road in Fort Frances, as often, these blatant markers of colonization have been renamed to re-word colonization into a nicer sounding nation-building. Colonization Road was part of the Dawson route constructed to help build a Canadian nation, to get settlers out west, and to get government troops inland to fight Metis resistance, that is, Metis resistance to the appropriation of their lands. Colonization Road runs along Rainy River, which is on the western side of what became mapped as Pither's Point. Pithers was the Indian Agent for the region. Indian agents, whose jobs were abolished in 1969, had absolute power and control over First Nations peoples and their lands, from deciding who got to be a "Status Indian", to displacing the authority of First Nations leaders, securing "surrender" of lands, forcing children into residential schools, and many other atrocities formerly considered just--that is, by those who made those policies.

At Pither's Point, near St. Francis [Fort Frances]. [no date, archival photo]
Library and Archives Canada

Pither's Point, as the archival photo caption states clearly, is not in Fort Francis, but nearby to it. It is, in fact, on land that was 'reserved' for the Anishnawbek through treaty-making. Although its name would suggest otherwise, Pither's Point is First Nations reserve land belonging to the people of Couchiching, Stanjikoming, Nicickousemenecaning (formerly Red Gut, but which actually translates to "little otter playing") and Naicatchewenin (formerly Northwest Bay).

a display board at Fort Frances Museum

Through colonization, the land the Anishnawbek lived on, were part of, and migrated through was taken from them and small tracts of land called reservations were "given" back to them. How colonial powers allocated land that is not theirs in the first place and pushed the indigenous inhabitants onto reservations is the unjust story of Canadian map-making, nation-building and colonization. Is this history? Does Canada now recognize the rights of its Indigenous peoples? Well, as I told you in earlier posts, Canada did not sign the UN Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Also, Canada did not attend Durban II which is a world forum that holds countries like Canada that have histories of racism and racist policies accountable, holds countries like Canada answerable to indigenous claims to land, to their inherent rights, and, importantly, to restitution. No wonder Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel boycotted Durban. Restitution means: 1. The act of restoring to the rightful owner something that has been taken away, lost, or surrendered; 2. The act of making good or compensating for loss, damage, or injury; indemnification; 3. A return to or restoration of a previous state or position.

Blueprint plan for Pither's Point, 1918.
Library and Archives Canada.
Today on Pither's Point there is a popular municipal park with a beach, which is run by the town of Fort Frances as a tourist attraction. Years before the park was created, Pithers had built his home on this piece of land--as he was Indian Agent, who could tell him not to? Certainly he didn't have to listen to the Anishnawbek, for they were legally obliged to listen to him.
This old blueprint maps out the park that was eventually built on First Nations land. For 99 years, the town of Fort Frances has been renting Pither's Point for $35/year. Have they been renting this from the First Nations or from the federal government? That is the court case question. The lease is up at the end of this month. The court case, too, is coming up at the end of this month, but as it is expected to not be resolved by the time the lease is up, the Anishnawbek are permitting the town to run the park this summer as the court case gets settled. The provincial and federal governments have stated in a legal letter that “We would like clarify our position to the status of the park once the lease expires in the event other arrangements are not in place,” the letter read. “It is the view of both Ontario and Canada [that] the lands are unsold surrendered lands which would be unencumbered by any lease." So, it seems the provincial and/or federal governments believe the land was "surrendered" to them, so they are the legal owners of the land. One of the things the Anishnawbek, who believe they are the owners of this land, want is fair market value compensation for this valuable property, not just $35/year. Considering that Pithers was hired in the early 1870s at $1000/year, and the land was rented 40 years later for $35/year, what the town paid for the land rental back in the day was a...steal. Literally.

Pither's Point is a sacred site. The ancestors of the Anishnawbek, the Laurel and the Black Duck Peoples, had a number of burial mounds on Pither's Point. This photo is of pottery shards of the Black Duck and Laurel Peoples, collected from the shores of Rainy Lake years ago by a Swedish immigrant.

Here is a sketch of what a Black Duck pottery urn may have looked like.

I thought as I stood there on the banks of the point, listening to the teeming birds flying this way and that, paddling this way and that, and calling out this way and that, as I stood there watching a kingfisher survey the lakeshore from a bare oak branch, a swirl of swifts skim the water, and a smattering of goldeneyes snorkel for fish, that this certainly must've been an especially rich place for the Anishnawbek and their ancestors to migrate to in spring. It's teeming with life! Imagine how much more rich it must've been with life before the destruction colonization has brought! It was the pelican paddling serenely among a large flock of black cormorants at the point where the waters meet that told me to look. You can see him there if you look.


Anonymous said...

Awesome job! we be a bunch lucky folks livin here. :)

Faymus said...

I enjoyed your article... Feel free to stop by my blog. I just started it.

I would like to add myself as a follower but you do not have that button...

Take care! --Faymus

northshorewoman said...

Anonymous and Faymous, thanks for stopping by. Couchiching and region is absolutely beautiful and rich with life, people, and spirit. I think it is a magical and powerful place. I was honored to be a guest on your land.

Faymus, I will stop by soon. I look forward to reading your ideas. I like the name of your blog. We need to hear more songs of the mothers.

I will check into the "follower" button thing as soon as I get a minute.

Leonard. said...

Pither, not Pithers, was actually somehow appointed Indian Agent there before the Canadian government really had anything to do with that region. He had worked for the HBC beforehand, and that was how he got the appointment, through SImon Dawson, of the Dawson route fame. So, whilst Pither just took the land for himself, he took it before the government claimed it as an Indian reserve. In fact, there was a big battle between Pither and the Canadian government over whether or not the land, and the buildings he had constructed himself at his own expense, were his or the government's. He demanded compensation, the government threatened to fire him if he pressed the issue.

Either way, thanks for the post, I'd be really interested in knowing what happened with the court case.

Cal Morrisseau said...

As of today the issue of Pither's point is still not resolved nor since the lease has expired it has not reverted back to the First Nations. Instead the town of Fort Frances still utilzes it and continues to fight to retain it. Clearly this is a indication of how the Indigenious people could not be owners of land based on the fact that they were savages,(Arctic Front) had no form of structured government and lacked religion. Unfortunately an ideology which still prevails because the owners recognized are the Federal and Provincial governments. Time to correct and injustice, please