Interview with Elder Shirley Ida Williams

October 21st, 2019

By Dawn Pond, GreenUP’s Downtown Vibrancy Project and Depave Paradise Program Coordinator
This interview is part of the Jiimaan’ndewengadnong project. These oral histories are being shared and celebrated. The stories in this article have been adapted, with permission, from recorded conservations. There will be audio clips available on this webpage and in the Jiimaan’ndewengadnong park through phone numbers on the park plaques thanks to Nexicom and Impact Communications.

I had the privilege of meeting one of Tia Cavanagh’s mentors from her time at Trent University, Professor Emeritus Shirley Williams. Elder Shirley Ida Williams is a member of the Bird Clan of the Ojibway and Odawa First Nations of Canada. She is an accomplished educator of Anishinaabe culture and language, amongst other things, and she has given lectures all over Ontario. Tia recommended I talk to Shirley as Tia enjoyed learning from her as a student.

When I visited Shirley she told me tales from her childhood. She has been in Nogojiwanong (Peterborough) for many years but was born and raised at Wikwemikong First Nation unceded Reserve on Manitoulin Island. Manitoulin Island, as the largest inland island in the world with over 100 lakes of its own, has inspired a strong connection with the water in many ways.

“Well, my father used to make canoes. And we used to help, like my mother and I would help because I was the last one in the family to be–to leave to go to residential school. I stayed the longest. I didn’t go to school until 10. They kept me at home. I got to learn all kinds of things, see, because our life was fishing, and trapping, and hunting. We did all of those things, and berry picking, and gathering, and one of the things that we gathered was birch bark. Birch bark was used for many things. That’s how my mother used to make crafts in order to sell to have income in the family. And the other was to make birchbark canoes. And some of them (canoes) were small, some of them were big, and then we used to make big big ones for fishing or whatever.”

“Whenever we built a canoe though, he would start from bottom. He would measure how long the boat would be. And we put stakes on the ground. Everything was really homemade from the land and things like that. So whenever we did that, our job, my mother’s job, was to go and melt the gum off the trees. And that was our job to go and melt the gum off the tree. And then we would put it in a container. That’s what he would use for glue. You know, to make the sealant. Yeah. And all of those canoes, we never, we hardly ever had a chance to use our own, that he made, because people will come and buy them off him. And so at that time the big ones he made went for $300 or something like that.”

Like Tia, Shirley observed the limited supply of suitable trees and the effect this had on the craft. “After a while there was not the trees were not big enough, you know, for birch bark to go around to make a big canoe […] so he started making them boats, like a boat for fishing. And that’s how he made his money. People come and rent the boats for them to go fishing.”

Living on a bay on Manitoulin Island, Shirley became sensitive to the water and the weather conditions. She would read the signs to judge if it was safe to be out on the bay.

“We would always watch the weather. How the weather’s going to be, I would do it just by watching the trees or whatever, where the wind was coming from. You knew there was a heavy wind when the waters would be rough, so we don’t go on the water. The best time was early in the morning, like five o’clock in the morning. And then the evening when the waters all settle down. There were lots of names of the lakes and that. Where we live, it’s called  Doganing, which means ‘opening of the bay.’ Because it is really is, the bay comes in, and then it narrows.”

In their own voices: how to listen to these & other canoe stories

Follow @PtboGreenUP on social media to be notified when audio of Shirley’s story and more canoe stories will be available on our website: greenup.on.ca/vibrancy. When completed, audio of these interviews will also be available to visitors at the Jiimaan’ndewemgadnong pocket park by calling the phone numbers on the park plaques.

Acknowledgements:

This kind of remarkable, authentic project doesn’t happen without a lot of collaboration and generous support. First and foremost, chi miigwech to Tia Cavanagh, Madeline Whetung, Shirley Williams, and Terry Musgrave for sharing their stories. Thanks to Nexicom and Impact Communications for donating their time and skills to make the audio interviews available. Thanks to the support of Lett Architects, Engage Engineering, Tree House Timberworks, Accurex, Coco Paving, Ralph’s Paving, Alderville Black Oak Savanna, The Food Shop, The Silver Bean café, and many more. The space itself has been generously made accessible to the public by Euphoria Wellness Spa, and the art installation was also generously sponsored by Kim and Mark Zippel. This project is also part of a larger movement led by Green Communities Canada and their national Depave Paradise Initiative. Funding for this project was provided by the Ontario Trillium Foundation. The Jiimaan’ndewemgadnong pocket park and Downtown Vibrancy Project are a partnership between the Downtown Business Improvement Area (DBIA) and GreenUP’s Depave Paradise project.

If you are interested in supporting the project by donating services or providing sponsorship please email Dawn Pond (dawn.pond@greenup.on.ca) for more details.

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