By Leslie Knibbs
Growing up in a small First Nation community on a river at a time when most people relied on fish and game for a subsistence living is an easy recollection for most Elders today. In the past, the day-to-day lives of many had a very real and vital connection to Mother Earth, and that is not as strongly felt today….for some. The obvious earth-based tradition of self-reliance has ancient roots in First Nation communities. Thankfully, now there is a renewed consciousness to reconnect with the earth, the land under our feet, and with our ancestors’ teachings of sustainability. Nowhere is this more abundantly clear than with the teachings of Elders like Raymond Owl of Sagamok Anishinabek First Nation.
Back in April of 1948, a young five-year-old Ojibwa lad was out spending the day with his father, ‘John D’ Owl. They were trapping muskrat near the Spanish River at Sagamok First Nation. And this was nothing new or extraordinary for many Ojibwa at that time; ‘John D’, like others in Sagamok, relied on catching fish and trapping muskrat to feed his growing family. But that day in April, 68 years ago would be extraordinarily different for many Ojibwa families dependent on the bounty found along the Spanish River—and not in a good way.
Raymond Owl, now 73 years of age, and one of the founders of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) Elders group, remembers that day as if it were yesterday.
“I looked up and down the river and everything was white,” recalled Owl. Asking his father what it was, his father never answered him. Raymond remembers his father being angry at the sight of thousands of dead fish stretching for miles up and down the river, “bank to bank.” It was later determined that the cause of the catastrophe was a lumber mill up river on the Spanish.
It was a sad day for the Owl family and many others. In those days, self-reliance was not as rare a quality in spirit as it is today, but rather a requirement to survive.
“Mother would send us kids out to catch fish for supper, and there was no shortage,” noted Owl.
According to Owl, “everything went downhill from there; the wild rice lining the banks died off, the muskrat faded away, and the ducks feeding on the wild rice went elsewhere.”
At five-years-old, an indelible impression was written on Owl’s heart; this was when Owl, on the north shore of Lake Huron first became aware of man-made damage to the environment.
Owl, like others as a child was sent away to mission school for his formal education. He spent six years at a mission school run by the Anglican Church in Sault Ste. Marie finishing grade eight. Owl learned to read and write while at school and became self educated from then on.
“Anything I wanted to know or learn about, I hit the books,” stated Owl.
As far as Owl knows, there was no sexual abuse or physical abuse at the school he attended where most of the staff was married with their own children.
Following school, he spent most of his time working in the bush for others, eventually starting his own company. From 1975 to 1983, he worked for the local Band as construction supervisor in charge of roads and other projects at Sagamok. Sagamok is split into three areas for residences: the riverside, the village, and those further away on Sagamok land. When hiring individuals to work in construction at Sagamok, Owl made it his purpose to be fair and choose an equal number of employees from each area; he showed no favoritism for family or friends.
“I take every person for who he or she is,” added Owl. Blessed with an ingrained sense of fairness, Owl continues to believe in being evenhanded in all of his endeavors.
Ray and his wife have been married for 30 years. His soul mate, Janet, works in the Elders Lodge providing a nutritious diet for the Elders when at work, and acts as her husband’s secretary for his work with TEK. The couple live in a beautiful handcrafted log house built over several years, all constructed by Janet and Ray with local resources. Believing in self-reliance, the Owls’ family home is completely off the grid, with no dependency on outside services. The remarkable house is a marvel in engineering built by a guy who “hit the books” to learn what he did not know.
These days when Owl is not protesting in Ottawa on Parliament Hill with other TEK members to stop aerial spraying as they did earlier this month, he goes out hunting with his son, builds furniture with branches, and assists those in need. When hunting today, harvesting moose and deer is not so easy these days as when he was a youth. On a recent trip to the Chapleau area, where hunting used to be easy, Raymond and his son drove the back roads all day long not seeing anything. In the early 1990’s, Owl noticed a lot of the area was clear-cut and finding game was difficult. While scouring and scouting the area for moose, he saw skull and cross bone signs everywhere indicating the area had been recently sprayed.
“Most of the animals had disappeared,” recalled Owl. The seeds of discontent were planted at this time.
With aerial spraying rearing its ugly head, Owl began looking into what was going on in the forests. At this time, he was attending many mining and mineral conferences across Canada; he first met Stefan O’neil, a lawyer lecturing on Traditional Ecological Knowledge. A friendship started between the lawyer and Owl who were mutually concerned with the devastation caused by aerial spraying. The friendship continues today.
Three years ago, Owl along with friend Willie Pine from Mississauga First Nation, started the TEK group on the North Shore. Since then the group has grown to include members from all 19 First Nations in the Robinson Huron Treaty. The group has lobbied Health Canada to put a stop to aerial spraying as well as the Ministry of Natural Resources in Ontario. At this time, TEK is waiting for a response from Health Canada representatives on their demands to put a stop to aerial spraying.
“If we don’t do something, nobody will know what is going on,” stated Owl.
That is the mantra of Raymond Owl, a craftsman, an environmental activist, and a very intelligent, and caring man from Sagamok First Nation who believes forestry companies and all others should be responsible to the environment now in a good way.