Chief Ralph

Ralph Akiwenzie, Chief of Chippewas of Nawash,
died the morning of March 4, 2011.

If there is a gentleman more gentle a man than Ralph Akiwenzie, I would very much like to meet him.

Time and time again during his wake, people recalled not what he knew or what he did, but how he was in the world. They had many words to describe him: dedicated, wise, hard-working, brave in the way he faced adversity with honesty and integrity. My word is graceful. Chief Ralph, as we called him and as he called himself, had grace. A good dictionary will give you ten definitions for that noun – most of them fit the man like a glove.

He served as Chief of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation in Ontario almost continuously for 22 years and during that time became known in Ontario and in Canada for his staunch support of Aboriginal rights and claims. During the army’s attack on the Haudenosaunee at Oka, he and Chief Vern Roote led the Nawash and Saugeen First Nations in a supporting blockade of highway 6 in the Bruce Peninsula. He expressed his support for the Stoney Pointers’ occupation of the military base at Camp Ipperwash and was asked to say prayers at the funeral of Dudley George.

He led his community in the recovery of their burial ground in Owen Sound, sleeping at the site, in the snow for six days of the coldest December in years until the government agreed to negotiate directly with the Band. With the community and Council behind him, he resolutely defended his First Nation’s rights to fish commercially, even in the face of an anti-Native rights backlash that saw fishermen’s tugs vandalized and burned, thousands of meters of nets destroyed, Band members harassed in stores and on the streets and four Nawash youth beaten and stabbed in Owen Sound.

During his time as Chief, Nawash and Saugeen launched one of the biggest land claims in Canada. They are claiming the entire Bruce Peninsula – land where possible and compensation where not ($80 billions worth). About five years ago, the two First Nations began to assert authority in their traditional territories by insisting they be consulted on matters being planned that affect their aboriginal and treaty rights. That brought more conflict with local governments and Ontario.

RA RIP Ogimaa Mar11

Found graffiti in Wiarton the day we buried the Chief (Ogimaa).

And yet, Chief Ralph’s gentle leadership style and his willingness to talk to anyone made friends even of his foes. Milt McIver, a former mayor of Wiarton with whom Chief Ralph often clashed said: “In my meetings with Ralph I regarded him as a true gentleman. He was extremely well spoken and he was very interesting to listen to. And I don’t think I ever met anyone that had such a gentle mannerism as Ralph. I just had a whole lot of respect for him.”

I worked with Ralph – you never felt that you worked for the man, but along side him, in common cause – for over twenty years. Before then I had worked in both federal and provincial government, in the cutthroat world of advertising and with a variety of NGOs. But I had never seen anything that approached the responsibilities and sheer work load that I saw on Chief Ralph’s desk.

Or in his famous plastic bags. I bought him a briefcase once and he just sort of looked at it and said thanks. A week later I asked the Council Secretary where it was and she said in a closet with all the other briefcases people had given him. His plastic bags were organized according to issue and were bursting with briefing materials of a complexity that would make a premier blanch.

I remember Ralph saying that the highlight of his time as Chief was giving testimony in the landmark Jones-Nadjiwon court case in 1993 which recognized Nawash and Saugeen fishermen have, and always had, the right to sell the fish they catch in waters around their traditional territories. The judge overturned the Ontario government’s management of the fishery, declaring it discriminatory and unconstitutional. It was a revolutionary decision in Ontario and, in the Bruce Peninsula, it sparked a nasty, decade-long backlash – years of harassment that lasted right though the Harris government’s years.

Chief Ralph was a teacher. He taught public school in Stratford and at home at Nawash. He cherished knowledge and he loved to pass it on, not to show off, but just because he loved it so. He couldn’t help himself. You’d be in his office to talk about one of the many matters that pressed themselves on him and he would suddenly say, for example, how glad he was that Benazir Bhutto had just been elected Prime Minister of Pakistan and what that meant for peace in the region.

When he got around to the matter at hand, chances were he knew the background better than you did and had the documentation you needed at his fingertips. I can remember him instructing more than one cabinet minister on the law and how to properly apply it to First Nations in general and Nawash in particular.

He didn’t make a lot of money and I think he gave much of it away. His job took most of his time but, somehow, he found enough to foster a niece and a nephew. He didn’t own a car or have a driver’s licence but, as someone said at his wake, he logged more kilometres in a month than some people do in a year.

It was not unusual to be getting ready for bed and settling in to watch the news when the phone would ring: Chief Ralph looking for a ride home from the Band office. It did no good say you were already in bed. “Oh shoot,” he’d say. “And I’ve got to head down to London tomorrow at six in the morning.”

It wasn’t a scold or an attempt to make you feel guilty; it was a statement of fact. So up you’d get, dress and drive grumpily down to the Band office. But by the time you got him home, you had been thoroughly briefed on the issue of the day, and told something that made you laugh and grateful you had another chance to do a service for someone as selfless as Chief Ralph.

He was never shy and rarely angry. Even when the rumours would fly, as they do in politics everywhere, that said he did or didn’t do one thing or another, he would address them in Council. Looking people right in the eye, he would say, “I categorically reject these allegations.” He would frown, and continue, “And I’m not too crazy about the alligators who made them, either.” Then he would throw back his head and laugh. And not a little ironic chuckle either; it was a full-throated whoop that made you smile. No hard feelings, no anger, no rumour could withstand such as assault.

He sang to his community. Every Chief’s Feast in January he would end with his rendition of “She’ll be comin’ round the mountain, when she comes” in Ojibwe. During his wake we listened to a recording of Chief Ralph singing other songs in Ojibwe, a cappella, in tune, gracefully.

I remember thanking him for something he said once, and praising the way he said it. He changed the subject. It wasn’t false modesty or even real modesty. It was the old way poking through – the way that says, “If I do well, do not thank me. It is only what I am supposed to do.”

The old way poked through a lot: the Ojibwe he spoke fluently and enthusiastically, his readiness to laugh even at his own expense, his humility. He gave out respect and it came back to him. The chiefs who spoke at his wake made it clear that Chief Ralph had the ear of the other chiefs when he spoke and was respected across the country for his determination to recover what had been lost.

When I saw him last, he knew he was about to die. An elder visited him just after he received the diagnosis of advanced pancreatic cancer. She told me he was sad and was thinking of what he had to put in order, but that he remembered the exact number of years that they had served on Council together – fourteen. That was Chief Ralph.

He knew love too, judging from the crowded Community Centre at his funeral and the number of people who came home to tell stories about how Chief Ralph had touched them personally. He gave everything to others and expected nothing in return. I believe that was what gave him grace in life and peace at the end. He gave away himself, and if that isn’t love I don’t know what is.

March 9, 2011
David McLaren

To anyone who knew Chief Ralph or would like to pass this around, please feel free to copy it and use it as you see fit.
Just include the author’s name and the web address.

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About David McLaren

David McLaren is an award-winning writer. He has worked in government and the private sector, with NGOs and First Nations in Ontario. He is currently writing from Neyaashiinigamiing on the shore of Georgian Bay and can be reached at david.mclaren@utoronto.ca. In February 2015, he won the nomination for the NDP to represent the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound in the 2015 federal election. See that page for writings during the campaign.
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12 Responses to Chief Ralph

  1. nisheducator says:

    I attended school and taught with Ralph. I very much appreciate David’s post. Losing Ralph was much like losing a family member. The heart pain was enormous and I do feel that much like losing Gordon and Stella Johnston in 2010, we have lost one of the great pillars of the community who provided us with stability. Miigwetch David

  2. Leonnard McLeod says:

    This is as perfect description of Ralf as i have had the pleasure of reading. The only person who was a gentle as Ralf was uncle George Keeshig. Both men were beloved.

  3. Sheena says:

    Miigwetch David for writing this, I would’ve stood with Ralph anywhere…and felt informed, empowered and happy in his company. Reading your words here through teary eyes reminds me of that saying that “if you can see it, it is because it is reflected in you…” or something like that. May we all continue to stand up, laugh hard, and take time each day to do something for the better good of our community and future. Much Respect *

  4. Lindsay says:

    Dave your article and description of Ogimaa is so true. Ralph was definitely cut from an unique fabric. He was the only leader a large generation of Cape knew. He always spoke to me as an equal never condescending. He knew all my kids by name and remember their accomplishments and would congratulate them when he had the chance. Ralph was a great friend of our family. He left large shoes to fill, but I doubt that was a worry for him because he was so humble in every way. He will be missed and remember always. I had to smile about your remark regarding rides. I lived next door to the BO for a few years and cleaned the building for a few too so I had the chance to provide rides for the CHief too. I really appreicate now how he debriefed me on the meeting he was heading to or just came from. I had no knowledge on the subject but by the time I dropped him off I understood. Thanks agian David for the beautiful article

  5. Solomon says:

    Hello David,

    Very eloquent, humbling and truthful words to a man that serves as a reminder to us all, that we can be who we want to be……I have early moments when I remember him as a Ojibwe teacher, teaching us the Makwa song,,,I still sing the songs he taught me to myself….and him becoming chief….and serving the community in so many ways….
    He knew exactly what to say and how to make everyone feel that they were being heard and appreciated…..
    Anyways, I will leave it at that…and miigwetch for bringing me more insight about our chief, Ralph Akiwenzie…

  6. Hanns and Marlene Skoutajan says:

    Thank you so much, David, for those wonderful recollections of Chief Ralph. We felt very privileged to know him during the eleven years we lived in Owen Sound when we organized the “Neighbours of Nawash. You were a pillar of strength to him in his struggle for justice. We always enjoyed going to the Cape and meeting Ralph and others. On one occasion there was a picture in the press of an “unidentified woman buys contraband fish” in front of the band office where Ralph was weighing them out. The unidentified woman happened to be Marlene, my spouse. I also recall those plastic bags that you wrote about, they were a kind of a badge of his humility and wisdom. I am sure that as it was with John Brown, “his body lies a mould’ring in the grave but his soul goes marching on.”

  7. Laura Robinson says:

    Hello David:

    I received the news of Chief Akiwenzie passing while in Norway and felt a rush of despair. He was truly a leader, and a gentle man. As you say, he carried grace within him at all times. You could see this by observing him for a few minutes, as my partner John and I have over many years.

    There aren’t enough people like Chief Ralph (I like that a bit better than using his last name). His concerns were always for the people. With his intelligence and experience he could have climbed many ladders, including those in Ottawa and Toronto, but he chose to stay with the people he cared so deeply about. That the Jones/Nadjiwon decision came under his leadership is profound. This combination of righting historical wrongs through a combination of a deep understanding of treaties and laws governing Aboriginal people and the Crown and an equally deep sense of justice guided him in the complex decision-making and negotiations he faced.

    Losing Ralph is like losing a star–there is some amount of light that is no longer there. I think the best tribute to someone like him is to continue the work to which he applied himself so passionately.

    Laura Robinson

  8. Ken Luckhardt says:

    I had happened to see the notice of Chief Ralph’s death in the Toronto papers, but nothing could be as meaningful as your personal commentary.

    I remember well introducing him from behind the CAW podium in Port Elgin, while watching him comb through his plastic bag searching for his notes or whatever was of importance at the moment.

    As the South Africans would say to a departed comrade, “Hambe Kahle”(Go Well!), Chief Ralph.

  9. Rick Wallace says:

    Hi David. I hadn’t known about former Chief Akiwenzie’s death until today. Your writing was a beautiful description. I remember meeting with Ralph a few times at his home when I was doing research concerning the fishing conflict and Cape’s rights. Chief Akiwenzie was, in my experience, exactly as you said: a gentlemen, a gentle person, humble, patient and committed to the Ojibway language and the community. I’m sorry to hear of his passing and I wish him well.

  10. Owen Johnston says:

    Dave, thank you for your insight and humble words of a man many had the pleasure to meet. He was a great Chief and a champion of his Community. I for one will miss his open door policy and willingness to put matters aside to hear your concerns, he truly did care for and love his people. I believe he has written a blueprint for our future leaders to follow. They just have to be willing to pick up the staff and continue on with his desire to put the Community and its Members before themselves. To lead with their heart and speak gently and respectfully in the most difficult of times. He has taught people to research and inform themselves with knowledge of the issues they will be pursuing or defending. Most of all he has taught me that you do not have to be loud and boisterous to make your point heard, sometimes just being silent and listening can make people take notice of your presence.

  11. Sidney Nadjiwon says:

    Thanks Dave for keeping the doors open to remembering.
    You have missed nothing in your recall of the Man.
    I spent 9 years on council and 7 of those as head councilor for Nawash.
    I have had the opportunity to travel from one coast to the other with the Chief and was amazed at every turn what could be recalled from the mans, mind from years gone by, names, dates and what was important from a meeting 5 years ago. I remember as a young boy how he loved to swim but did not swim well and so he would go swimming alone and I always feared he may drown. He would cherish our company when we did join him as we did not swim well back then either.

    I have always had respect for the man as he respected everyone he came in contact with. We worked well as a team and he was never shy to have your opinion before he decided what was to be done.
    He managed to keep control of the council table is some of the most akward situations and confontations with band members. He stood his ground when we staged a sitin at the Medical Sevices and demanded to speak with the minister, as that was our purpose there and they had canceled the meeting. We did meet with the Minister highly guarded by RCMP officers. Matters were important and No was not an option.

    So I to will miss him along with my family for when I was working the fish farm he would stop by for coffee an update of events and his daily ride to work, rain or shine.

  12. Joyce Johnston says:

    Today as I read your article I too was reminded of how dedicated Ralph was as our Chief. He never seemed to tire of the work, and as someone once said, we were the first thing on his mind as he rose from sleep and the last thing on his mind before retiring in the evening. He was as described by many, and I miss him to this day.

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