WAABIGONIIW SAAGA’IGANIIW ANISHINAABEG
Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation is a First Nation community located in the heart of the Canadian Shield lake country to Northwestern Ontario. The five hundred members of Wabigoon belong to the great Ojibway Nation of the Great Lakes region of Canada and the United States. It extends west from the Great Lakes to Manitoba, Minnesota and beyond. Approximately two hundred members of the First Nation live on the Wabigoon reservation and another two hundred live in the local area and they participate in its economic and cultural life. The formal leadership of the community is through Chief and Council. Chief and Council are determined by vote of community members.
The ancient presence of Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation people on their land is reflected in its vast forests and countless lakes, rivers and streams. This landscape is in turn reflected in them in their language, culture and way of life. Extensive fields of Manomin (wild rice) were planted by the ancestors and now form an abundant source of food for people and animals. Vast towering stands of pine, birch, cedar and spruce, as well as blueberries and other foods, were nurtured by an extensive knowledge and practice of controlled burning. The homeland of Wabigoon people is an Ojibway cultural landscape.
The members of Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation are descendants of signatories of an Indian Treaty with the British Crown in Right of Canada that covers 55,000 square miles of land. Treaty #3 was signed in October of 1873.
Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation is rapidly becoming a native community with a vibrant renewed native cultural, social and economic life. Now emerging from a history of extreme hardship and privation, the First Nation has become a progressive force for renewal throughout the Treaty #3 region. The history of Wabigoon people includes the tragedy of demographic collapse that resulted from the ravages of sickness and disease that was brought to Canada by European explorers, missionaries, government officials and settlers. This was followed by systematic cultural suppression including the outlawing of their sacred religious ceremonies by the Government of Canada. This suppression by the Government of Canada was so pervasive that status Indians were not recognized as "persons" under Canadian law until 1960.
Even during their years of privation and hardship, Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation people were planting the seeds of their cultural and economic renewal. The Wabigoon Nation held fast to their traditional spirit of survival and enterprise. For example, when a dam was built by the settler forestry industry at Dryden in 1896, extensive fields of Manomin and hay pastures were flooded. Where Manomin fields were flooded the plant could grow no more. In response, Wabigoon people undertook a systematic program of taking Manomin from local lakes unaffected by the flooding and planting it into their hay pastures that were now under shallow water. The Manomin fields there today include some of the most extensive in the region. They are so ecologically as well as economically significant that they are now protected by the Government of Ontario. These Manomin fields support the only native wild rice processing plant in Canada - a facility built by Wabigoon people in 1988 and located on the Wabigoon reservation. In the late 1950's and early 1960's the Government of Ontario engaged in a systematic effort to develop and implement legislation that would have seen the alienation of most of the tribally held rice fields in the Treaty #3 into non-native hands. It was the Chief of Wabigoon, Chief Paul Pitchenese, who led the successful effort to prevent this from happening. Without this effort a native-owned wild rice processing plant would not exist on the Wabigoon reservation today.
The pro-active efforts of Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation towards economic self-determination have been applied in a variety of areas. Some members of Wabigoon are now fifth generation native Ojibway loggers. Even when an Indian Agent was unlawfully selling timber resources from the Wabigoon reservation a century ago (sales which have now given rise to a lawful land claim that is currently being resolved with the Government of Canada), Wabigoon people were fighting to participate fully in the regional forestry industry. Now the First Nation is home to the most successful native logging enterprise in Ontario. This enterprise is an integrated "stump to dump" operation where an Ojibway company does everything from building forest access roads to delivering wood that it harvests to regional mills. Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation has built on this success; it operates a successful tree nursery that now grows six million seedlings under contract with mainstream forestry companies. The community is currently expanding into a value-added forest products tribal enterprise venture.
The members of Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation have developed a progressive culture of tribal economic and cultural entrepreneurship. What is meant by cultural entrepreneurship? It is a pro-active approach to cultural renewal. For more than a century the cultural practices of the Ojibway people were suppressed in Canada. As already noted, their sacred ceremonies were outlawed. It was in the context of this legacy of discrimination that Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation became the first community in the Treaty #3 region to hold an open and public "traditional powwow". This happened in the 1970's.
The economic and cultural renewal that can be readily seen taking place at Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation today is, in effect, the culmination of generations of work and preparation. The dividends of this effort are growing. For example, the wild rice processing plant on the Wabigoon reservation is supporting the development of new value-added Non-Timber Forest Products including an assortment of Manomin bars. The logging and tree nursery businesses on the reservation have laid the foundation for the development of a value-added forest products manufacturing enterprise - an initiative that is now in its advanced planning stages.
Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation is now extending its enterprise goals into business networks and partnerships with other First Nations and tribes and non-native businesses. This includes business partnerships for distribution and marketing in both goods and services. These developments reflect a native community on the move.
The culture of enterprise that is clearly evident at Wabigoon today is consistent with and linked to what it means to be Ojibway. It is seen as complementary to the renewal of other cultural practices such as traditional powwows. It is an identity of traditional Ojibway people who are able to flourish in the contemporary world.
This culture of enterprise at Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation has broadly engaged the community with the wider society. This engagement is supported by robust technical service supports that have been nurtured by the First Nation. Like any smart business people, the leaders of Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation know its limitations with respect to the community's capacity to do all the things needed to achieve its enterprise objectives. Strategic partnerships have been and continue to be developed to realize them. The Wabigoon Nation continues to build on past economic successes that will secure a place for their children and grandchildren and all of the descendants who will follow.