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People, Environment

The Water Peoples: Stories of Growing up on the Eastern Edge of Georgian Bay

Curated by Jessica Lukawiecki

Storyteller: Elder Marilyn Capreol

November 4, 2021

Shawanaga First Nation Elder Marilyn Capreol grew up on the Eastern parts of Georgian Bay, in a community of people who lived and travelled within Pointe au Baril waters Gebiiyaang in the Ojibwe language), at a time when the rock bass were plentiful and the ice was thick. The youngest of a family with six children, Marilyn speaks fondly of a tight knit community bound by their knowledge of the local waters and their connection to human and nonhuman kin. It is amongst these islands that she has returned in her later years, and at age 72 she speaks to me from outside her cottage by the dock - about growing up on these waters, her years spent in Toronto and her work there, her return to ceremony and eventually, her call to come back home.

I was born here in Georgian Bay – yeah, late 40’s. At that time, life was not what it is today. The way that I grew up was without hydro, there was no hydro – it wasn’t that we didn’t have it in the house, there just wasn’t hydro lines here. The highway was passable but not refined like they are today, so we had to pay attention – and very few cars – I remember three vehicles. The train came through here, and that was our mode to go from Pointe au Baril waters to Parry Sound, which was the biggest, largest place to go shopping, trade furs, buy clothes, that type of thing. So that’s the beginning of my life.

Marilyn came to know the traditional territories of her people through experience and exploration, learning early on to navigate the places that would come to define her youth and later life – the Bread Basket (named after her dad, a good spot to harvest all kinds of fish species), the Bottleneck, Divided Island, Shawanaga Pool. These place names carry with them the weight of the knowledge they convey: places of comfort, places gifting life sustaining resources, places ingrained in memory and transmitted from one generation to the next.

A gifted storyteller, Marilyn is quick to laugh and her stories speak for themselves – she remembers with quick wit and vivid detail her teachings as a five-year-old girl, from her mother and father, grandmother and grandfather – ‘Grandpa Gee La’ – and the grannies or aunties of her water-based community. As she recounts, “Pointe au Baril and Shawanaga were water communities, they weren’t land communities like today, because the travel was not on the land per se, it was on the water.” Many of her stories about childhood are uniquely humorous, and bring laughter to both our lips as she recounts them.

Transportation was so limited, but we were taught how to swim. One of our grandmothers, she used to love rock bass. They’re very tough skinned, they’ve got big spikes on the back of them, if you grab them the wrong way your hands are punctured… There was another little spot, they had the best rock bass catching over there. And right in the middle of that channel there’s an island and we knew the people that lived there, and he used to let us go and fish on the other side... We would swim that channel, it’s not very far to go across, but when you’re six it seemed like forever, and we had a pillowcase or something like that, so we put the rock bass in there, and you didn’t want to be the one to pull the short stick so that you had to swim with the rock bass bag back again. Oh, I used to be so terrified when it was my turn to drag it, the string would come undone and I would lose all the fish!

Her stories bring to life the deep connections and knowledge that her peoples hold of shifting seasons in their territories and of lives intimately intertwined with the natural world.

But in those times too, the winters were healthy winters, there wasn’t the drought that we suffer now, and the ice it was cold enough to freeze ice blocks that would have been four feet in depth…. And you know I remember seeing those ice blocks when I was small, and the clarity so that we understood what the ice was, and the way that the people used to mark the ice for safe travelling was they would cut a square there, pull it up and put it on the ice so that we understood that – four feet over here, a foot and a half over here, no ice over there, that type of thing. And they needed to do that, the men, and the families, because some of the families lived on the islands. And people had a horse and a sleigh, they were what I call the ice highways.

These early teachings and adventures, which today make Marilyn chuckle nostalgically, were also formative in teaching her the life lessons and ways of her people.

But everybody, right from the minute they put us on this earth, that we were gifted to the people here, your families and community, your sense of listening, smelling, feeling, understanding the relationship of the wind, and what to be careful of: that started as our first role and responsibility.

At the age of fourteen, she moved with her mother to the City of Toronto, where she resumed her Grade 10 studies at North Toronto Collegiate Institute. Marilyn recalls how life in the big city came with its share of changes and new experiences:

My mother, myself, and her dad, Grandpa Gee La, we went to the CNE. So we took the streetcar – well I had never seen such a diverse community of people, and I was just fascinated by the colour, because all we saw here was brown skin and blondes in the summer. You didn’t see black people, you didn’t see Chinese people, you didn’t see Indian people from India, you didn’t see Jewish people. So it was like a rainbow of spirit looking at the people. And my mum, she spanked me, nine years old she spanked me right there and then because I couldn’t stop staring at the beautiful people.

Soon after finishing school she met her husband, Rick, and together, they started a life in the big city, eventually buying a house and having three children. Like all families, she remembers challenges and growing pains, but looks back on life in Toronto with fondness. It was there that she became involved in working with the homeless population, eventually becoming the president of the Native Men’s Residence for thirteen years. Reflecting on the people that she worked with through this work, Marilyn explains that “what they have taught me about life… that inner place that allows them to survive… stands with me and will go to sleep with me.”

It was also in Toronto that Marilyn was able to begin reconnecting with the practices of her peoples that were forbidden back home. From 1885 to 1951, all First Nations cultural practices were banned in Canada under the Indian Act. Marilyn recalls in her early years how prayers and ceremonies were held in secret at her grandparents’ house, away from the watchful eyes of the Indian Agent who lived on reserve. Out of safety, curious children were hidden in the kitchen when these practices took place for funerals or gatherings. In Toronto, amongst her newfound network of kin, Marilyn was finally able to begin learning about the language, ceremonies and songs of her people: spiritual practices that she now carries with her in all her work and teachings – “it just allowed the replacement of the spirituality that for me, was never allowed because we were not allowed to have ceremony.”

In 2007, she and her husband were in a position to move back home to the waters where so much of Marilyn’s life had been shaped. In the fourteen years since she has returned home, Marilyn has seen great change in the region. The ice that she grew up trusting and travelling upon has changed and is for the most part impassible in the winters, a time of year when she and her husband now have to take a place on the mainland. Forest fires have become more common in the region, often jumping from island to island or travelling underground through root systems, because the earth has become so dry. Drastic environmental changes in the region mean that what once was a water-based peoples have mostly moved to the mainland to live safely. She explains the connection between the environmental changes she has observed on the land and water as being linked to the influx of new people and money to the region.

How has it changed? Most of the impact is called money. Money is the damage, the greed of money. The abuse of a woman, the greatest one that we have, Earth Woman (Sqwaag Mikwe). You cannot stress this enough. I don’t even know what fifty years from now is going to look like. The impact in that short time, that’s how fast things are deteriorating. We’re not looking at a four foot block of clear ice as I did at five years old, six years old. And now I’m 72. That’s not a long time.

Despite the changes, Marilyn tells me how she is grateful to spend her later years on the lands and waters where she grew up. Standing outside her cottage as she talks to me, Marilyn describes her and her family’s way of life today:

What we live in here we live in 640 square feet. Right now, we live outside. Inside is basically for sleeping and cleaning yourself up and cooking. The rest of it, your living room, even in the wintertime, go down on the ice there and you take your coffee and cut a hole in the ice, and maybe fish bite, but you’re outside. So to come back and come into this flow was just amazing, because I never thought that I would do this, have that opportunity in my life, and here I am. Never thought I would come back to live how I was raised, well I am.

Elder Marilyn Capreol is Anishinaabe from Shawanaga First Nation in Ontario and is a founding member of the Conservation through Reconciliation Partnership (CRP) Elder’s Lodge, based out of the University of Guelph. Throughout her life she has been an active volunteer: for many years she was the President of the Circle of Directors for Na Me Res, a shelter for Indigenous men in Toronto. She is also involved with the Georgian Bay Biosphere reserve and is a member of the Indigenous Circle for the Canadian Biosphere Reserves Association.

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