Wilmer Nadjiwon was born in 1921 at Cape Croker, Ontario

Interview and photos
by Danny Beaton, Mohawk Nation
News From Indian Country

Wilmer Nadjiwon
I suppose if you want to talk about my past, my life, you’d have to start back probably the year 1956-1957.

When I was working in the States at the time I took a holiday and came back to Cape Croker, and while I was home I noticed a man. Later I found out he was an Indian Agent, standing by a large bonfire by our community center. Another person there was one of our caretakers for public buildings, he was keeping the fire going.

As I approached and looked at the large mound of fire, I noticed that it was books, real thick journals. So I noticed one that wasn’t burning very good, so I kicked it out of the pile and picked it up and started to read, it was hand written land sales from that book. In them days Indian Agents had total power over our people. Even though I had been to war and back I was still reluctant to say anything about this burning that he was doing. He said to me “put that book back and get out of here.”

“You have no business here,” he said so I left him. I actually went back to the States, I went back to work, but that image of them books burning never left me.

Some years later I came back, around 1960, on the reserve. I used to attend council meetings and in 1963 at a council meeting there was an invitation to have some delegate to attend an organization called the Folk Schools.

The Folk Schools was a group of people who would get together, who would get other people together, to talk over problems that they were having in their communities, trying to find solutions. I didn’t know about this group and the council didn’t know really what this group was about, so we were joking and I said I would be glad to go and represent the reserve and go find out what this school is all about.

Later they decided I should go, and a couple of our councilors decided they would go too, so we decided to go together to the meeting in a little village called Collingwood and that is where we went, where they had a whole motel complex rented to hold this meeting.

It was a meeting with all Natives, Natives from different tribes and reserves. We came together, we stayed there for some time, the keynote speaker was Mr. Bono who was director of Indian Affairs in Ontario.

He got up and gave a long address, about how the Indian was advancing and moving ahead and all that. When he was finished he said if anyone has any questions I would be happy to answer them. That gave me the opening and I remembered them books that I’d seen burning. So I said, “I only have one question, a very simple one Mr. Bono; who gave our Indian Agent the authority, the responsibility, of burning books of land sales?”

I said to the director of Indian Affairs, “I know this because I was there to witness the burning of these books.” I said “Did you instruct him or do you know who did.”

Well he gave me some long speech but didn’t answer my question. Then I said, “You didn’t answer my question, who gave the Indian Agent the authority.” He answered me this time by saying that is all I have to say now, we must move on.

Most of the people, the Native people, had never seen anybody defy authority to the Indian Agent and here was the director of Indian Affairs being defied.

After we had this little verbal tussle a lot of our people I’m sure thought, maybe we are wrong for accepting everything they put in front of us.

This exchange I had with the director of Indian Affairs kind of set the tone for the meeting, which lasted one week. On the way back home the delegates from Cape Croker and Saugeen Reserve said, well you should run for Chief and I said I have never even been a councilor. They said it doesn’t matter, we’ll canvas for you. So I said if you think so, I’ll give it a try. An election came up and they started canvassing for me. It was the first time I ever ran for office and they made me Chief. That was 1964.

So as Chief I had known the past very well from the time I was born in 1921 and left residential school in 1935. I was well aware of the problems because when I came back from residential school my dad informed me that he and my older brother had been arrested for fishing off our 1 and 1/4 miles of water that we had around our reserve.

He said they had took his boat from him, he didn’t have a motor because we didn’t have motors in them days. They also took his fish and nets. He was left without any way of making a living, but eventually he got some other fishermen and went to Ottawa. They went directly to Indian Affairs to get his boat and nets back.

There were many stories that I had heard after I came back from the war, I had been an infantry man and in many battles on the front line. Here I was thinking about what do you do when somebody takes your boat and nets and doesn’t allow you to fish in the waters that you had and grew up with. I guess this starts a resentment and maybe anger.

This anger can only go away when some kind of justice is perpetrated, is relieved. This then would relieve the anger that you had. As long as I was Chief now, I decided certain things had to happen if we were to have any results. So the first thing that I thought was a unity.

I had been doing a lot of construction work – we had all these different people in different trades which would come together and strike and hold up the job if they weren’t satisfied with their wages or living conditions. So I thought this is a good idea to get the people together.

I called some Chiefs who had just come into office, one was Jimmy Mason from Saugeen, Omar Peters from Arabian Town and Jimmy Daboskay, West Bay. We all got together to talk about unity and how we could get together. Eventually, I think it was Jimmy Daboskay, he says I have all the addresses and phone numbers of all the Chiefs in Ontario.

He said if you want them I’d be glad to turn them over to you. We called a meeting of them Chiefs of Ontario at Cape Croker, we had Mohawks from Six Nations, we had Doctor Montour, Ethel Montour, Mohawks from Wahta and many other tribes and leaders, we even had some women from Quebec.

After we became united, we had some real serious power, we had our own people go onto the government side and try and defeat them.

After 3 days we had formed a constitution. The one thing that I had, I really insisted on, was a fact that we would not depend on the government of Canada to finance our organization. I said, “We will finance it ourselves and therefore we will have every opportunity to make or do our say without choking on their money.” We adopted that as part of our constitution that never would this organization take financing from the government.

In order to do that we had to have some way of financing our organization even if it was just to come for meetings. One of the ways we did this was charging 25 cents for every member on the reserve and adults had to pay one dollar for a union card, if they wanted one. This wasn’t much money but it tied the different reserves together in unity. This was the beginning of the Union of Ontario Indians.

After we became united, we had some real serious power, we had our own people go onto the government side and try and defeat them. If you were to try to find out today where the union started they’d say in 1840 or something, the actual fact is it was formed in Cape Croker in 1964.

It became a very, very useful tool for getting things done. We had improvement of housing, great, great improvements at that time through the union because the public could not ignore the fact that we needed housing and our health care. Our union did great great things for people when we first started, we had spirit, we had guts and we had real concern for real justice for our people.

Citizens Plus: by Danny Beaton

In a copy of Readers Digest of Canada, in a special issue that was written, Native Peoples in Canada had seen the tragic results of the United States termination policies of the 1950s and so they organized as never before against the Trudeau government proposals. Chiefs and elders presented the Prime Minister with an alternative Native position paper, soon nicknamed the Red Paper.

This document dismissed outright the ending of Indian Rights and instead advanced the notion that Aboriginal Peoples in Canada have the status of Citizens Plus. What this meant was that they should have all the rights of Canadian Citizens plus special status as confirmed by their treaties with the Crown.

The apparent dogmatic attitude of the present federal government with respect to treaties and Aboriginal Rights perpetrates the inequalitites of centuries and shuts the Indian off from forms of just redress.

Faced with broad organized resistance the government backed down. But the White Paper made an impact all the same – it had highlighted wide socio-economic gaps between Native and non-Native Canadians. To correct this imbalance, the Indian Affairs budget was expanded and some monies were channeled into support for Indian political organizations. Among other things, there was funding to help Aboriginal organizations set up permanently staffed offices in federal and provincial capitals.

Thus it became possible for Indian activists to become full-time lobbyists and political organizers.

Many welcomed the possibilities for Aboriginal self-determination. These advances seem to promise, but not everyone was pleased with the changes. Expressing his fears, Wilmer Nadjiwon, one of the architects of the Union of Ontario Indians asked, “How can you be expected to negotiate competently and honestly with the very party that is providing your funding. In allowing the federal and provincial government to take over the purse strings of our own political organizations, we gave up too much and opened the door to a very insidious process that tends to compromise or even subvert our own leadership.”

Nadjiwon’s fears about Indian leadership being subverted would echo later at Ipperwash and Gustafsen Lake. By then many others questioned how Indian leadership could be accountable to their own people, when Chiefs and Band Councillors are legally and financially accountable only to the Minister of Indian Affairs.

Back in the 1970s, however, most Native Peoples welcomed changes that gave them some control over such things as education, health care and social services. What real alternatives were there, given that most Aboriginal economics had been replaced by welfare, chronic unemployment and despair?

Wilmer was Chief for 14 years. He was paid three hundred and sixty four dollars a year, $364.00 per year less than a dollar a day and he never asked for a raise. If Wilmer were elected Chief again he would try to improve the fishing rights and fishing industry for his people. Wilmer says, elders know what life is all about, young guys are learning stuff in school these days. In the old days we used to share a steam engine to cut our wood or to build a house, then we would share the same engine to thrash our grains because we lived in a tight community, we all shared this community engine. We don’t have anything like that any more.

Nadjiwon "this Cape Croker property is Mother Earth’s body and is here to help the people survive."

“If we stayed here on the Cape our kids could learn a lot about life and our crafts and our way of life. We just need a place to sell our work, we are almost surrounded by water here. I know what I say and think, this Cape Croker property is Mother Earth’s body and is here to help the people survive.

“I don’t want to talk about the first Indian Agent that I kicked off the Reserve when I was made their Chief, but I did it, he, the Indian Agent said to me, his name was Al Adams, you’re the Chief and I’m the boss, then I said back to him, ‘there is no room for the two of us here.’

“I had my people remove him from the Reserve quickly. After that they sent three more Indian Agents to Cape Croker, one after another they left. I tried to work with them, but in time we learned that they were trying to control us with the support of the RCMP.

“Our people are getting evil minded now, we used to be social people, we used to be a real community, we worked together, we were socialists in a real way, there was a real harmony even peace. Today we can’t trust one another to the point where we can’t trespass on each other’s property. In the old days, this was never an issue, we are acting like our white brothers now.

“I expelled them four Indian Agents which I feel, was positive work back in the 1960s and 1970s while I was Chief elected by the people. It’s important to Nishnabie People, the Ojibway Nation, to know there was someone who cared for them, someone who loved them enough to get rid of Indian Agents, even though many of our own people wanted them.

“Today the money is coming from casinos, the government wants to give it to us, that money is built on misery, the misery of the people who lost it, people lose something when they lose everything. There’s so much to think of now, there’s so much to think of when there is misery and there is a lot of misery on Mother Earth, just think of the misery being caused to our Mother Earth’s body.

“The whole emphasis of Treaties was on the preservation of the Indian’s traditional way of life. We are the Saugeen and Chippawa’s of Nawash and will never forget our Ancestors.”

As I sit with this old man, the Thunder is speaking to us in the background outside his old cabin. Wilmer Nadjiwon is now 86 years old and has been a hunter, fisherman, trapper and is known throughout Ontario as the Carver for his incredible Totem Poles and carvings of Eagles, Bears, Beaver and of course his People. Wilmer is a legend for being outspoken for Native justice, for being a voice from the residential school nightmare era, he has been a bushman and more. He has been an Indian his entire life, because he could not survive any other way. He has been trying to restore and maintain the beauty, magnificence and spirit of North American Native culture.

This article is out of respect for Wilmer’s life and journey and work for our culture with a strong focus of his insight into the first Indian Agents who he expelled. This article is certainly only a few short paragraphs of a man’s life who is full of spirit and guts.

Danny Beaton’s website can be found On the Net at www.dannybeaton.ca