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. 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.
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
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.