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Fight to protect Benny Forest continues, backed by archeological, environmental and traditional knowledge studies

by Barbara McNichol

Archeological, Environmental and Traditional Knowledge studies to assess the request from Benny Native Clyde McNichol, his wife Dr. Barbara Ronson-McNichol, Chief Miller of Atikameksheng Anishnawbek, Geneva Lake residents and others to protect the Benny Forest, Clyde’s ancestral hunting territory, have been completed. Cutting blocks closest to Clyde's people's graves and his company, Camp Eagle Nest, have been temporarily saved through the course of this work, but the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) and lumbering giant Eacom say more studies are needed and are forging ahead with cutting and aerial spraying in the wider twenty mile radius Clyde is trying to protect, including large pristine blocks on the west side of the Spanish River. 

Clyde’s request is based on knowledge of his people’s many graves dispersed throughout the area, on the size of his family’s original hunting territory, and the agreements made during the years leading up to the 1850 Robinson Huron treaty. Neither the crown, nor Canada has completed the surveying that was promised during these negotiations in order to protect the various branches of the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek family including Clyde’s from settler encroachment and non-consensual resource extraction, according to elder and former Chief Art Petahtegoose.  Both Art and Clyde are direct descendants of Chief Shawanakeshick who signed the treaty on behalf of all the clan headmen of their Nation. Species such as moose and deer are not able to survive where clearcuts and single or double species replanting have taken place and they leave the area indefinitely, they say.  Aerial spraying of toxic herbicides, moreover, cause many species of plants, animals and insects to die immediately, and others to leave and/or succumb over time. Clyde’s Aboriginal treaty right to hunt, fish and gather is a collective right that is rendered meaningless when the animals and fish and plants are disturbed to such an extent as is happening today. An area of at least a twenty mile radius around Benny is required as a seed island for species survival of every kind. Species such as moose, bear and Canada warbler are at stake with anything smaller undisturbed.  No treaties have taken Clyde’s rights away, and he and his family have never been financially compensated for their loss of the land and preferred means of survival.

Clyde’s company, Camp Eagle Nest, launched an Arts Cooperative on October 17th at the Lockerby Legion that aims to attract artists to the area to help lead the way in taking care of the land more respectfully.  This will support their youth summer camping program and ensure that future generations have a healthier environment.

Clyde’s people have always lived within a clan system in which other clans respected their clearly defined and recognized hunting territory and did not encroach without permission from the “Giima” (grandfather, headman, or chief).  Game was plentiful before Europeans came and there was rarely a need to go beyond one’s own territory. The area Clyde is requesting is approximately the size of a hunting territory for one clan, one day’s walk from the home village or approximately 20 miles.   Native title to the land was acknowledged by the crown in The Royal Proclamation of 1763 that pledged that “possession of Indian lands is to be acquired by fair purchase” by governments, not by individuals. Native people fought in Pontiac’s War to establish such rights and the British agreed in exchange for privileges of peaceful neighbourly relations after fort after fort was destroyed when they were recovering from war with France.  The Native people pledged peaceful relations but the British still encroached for mining and other activities without treaties or fair purchase between governments in the nineteenth century. It was their reminder of the crown’s 1763 commitment that led to treaty negotiations culminating in the Robinson-Huron treaty of 1850.

No one, including signatories to the 1850 Robinson Huron treaty, surrendered the land rights of Clyde’s clan who were living in the Benny area. Shawanakeshick carefully insisted on including the hunting territories of all branches of his inland family in the treaty wording: To be set aside for “Shawenakeshick and his Band, a tract of land now occupied by them, and contained between two rivers, called Whitefish River, and Wanabitaseke, seven miles inland”. He and his people understood this to mean all of the hunting territories of the various branches of the family between the Whitefish and Wahnapitae Rivers starting seven miles inland up to the height of land (watershed). The Benny/ Bluewater Lake clan area was to be included in this along with the hunting territories of several families around Lake Wahnapitae, one family on Vermillion Lake and a few on lakes south of Whitefish Lake in the Killarney area. Shawanakeshick believed the treaty would protect all their relatively modest sized hunting territories, and give them a fair share of revenues from resource extraction from their wider traditional territory which they still would own, while allowing others to use, but he soon saw that they had been cheated.

All of the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek suffered as a result of the Crown’s and Canada’s neglect to survey any of their territory shortly after the 1850 treaty negotiations, as they did the other signatories, especially after Ontario tried to auction off their land for lumbering in 1872.  After repeated reminders and insistence by Atikameksheng Anishnawbek chiefs, Canada finally got one portion surveyed in 1884 (Chief Shawanakeshick‘s family territory). The surveyor complained that it was too much land for too few people (i.e. he tried to unilaterally change the agreement), he omitted areas with hydro and mining potential, and he complained that Canada did not give him enough funds to do the whole job.  He did promise to come out and survey the other family hunting territories further inland each summer after that until they were all done, but no one ever did return to finish the job. Already some of their land had been logged and the railway was continuing to cut wood from their territory for wood burning locomotives.  The other clans were instead pressured to amalgamate in Shawanakeshick’s hunting territory or lose all Indian “status” and entitlement to treaty money.  In addition to losing their hunting territory, they felt betrayed because the compensation to them for resource extraction from their traditional territory was only increased once (in 1874) to $4 per person per year and never again despite exponentially increasing revenues for the government of Ontario, promises to do so under such circumstances in the 1850 treaty, and a great number of pines that were cut off the reserve in the mid 1880’s.

 The Benny area Natives did not get the $4 per year treaty money as they were not registered as band members. Most other clans amalgamated with Shawanakeshick’s people on the one territory that had been surveyed. But the more remote Benny people were left alone, and when some of them finally did try to move to the reserve, they were told by the Indian Agent that they couldn’t, that they were not a registered part of the family.  Even Clyde’s grandfather, Joe Canard, who was raised by Whitefish Lake relatives, was not allowed by the Indian agent to receive treaty funds on the basis that no adoption papers could be found, so he moved with his young wife back to the Benny area and often lived away from town on a trap line, partly in an effort to protect their children from going to residential schools.

Chief Louis Espaniel, a younger brother of the neighbouring Sagamok relatives’ chief, wrote to Canadian authorities from Pogmassing trading post in 1884 to ask for a reserve and assistance for many sick and hungry people he was leading, (including Clyde’s grandmother who would have been two years old at the time, and some who came from north of the watershed, and probably others including Atikameksheng Anishnawbek of the Benny/Bluewater area who had inter-married), but Canada did not comply.  Many have acquired status more recently due to changing laws, but still have only been entitled to $4 each year from the time they obtained status. In Clyde McNichol’s case, he could collect $24 today since he got his status in 2009, but this amount is obviously ludicrous.  Clyde’s father Simon lost his trapline likely due to his inability to ward off poaching and theft of his traps by snowmobilers and meet the quota the MNR imposed.  He did not have a snowmobile, only snow shoes, and he could not always afford to replace his stolen traps. He did not get the same benefits or services as other WWII veterans and had no help for the post-traumatic stress disorder that afflicted him.  Without a trapline he could no longer care for his family of five boys adequately in the beautiful home he had built with his own hands in Benny so sold it to an uncle and moved to Cartier to take a job with CP in the early sixties.  After a few years his family under stress had to move back to Benny to live in the small home of his mother and uncle.  His wife contracted cancer shortly after that and died in hospital away from home at age 40 when Clyde, her youngest child, was just six years old.  He succumbed to cancer a few years later at age 51 after asking a brother-in-law to care for his boys so they could be near extended family in Benny, should he no longer be able to do so.  His sons were then raised by his late wife’s younger sister Kathleen (Kay) and her husband Ralph Espaniel, despite numerous efforts by the Children’s Aid to take them into care.  Clyde’s Aunt and Uncle did their best under the circumstances to care for them along with their own three children in their tiny home. They had them in sports, baseball, hockey etc. all the time and won much admiration in the wider Cartier community and beyond for their leadership and irrepressible community spirit.  The people of Benny were able to hold on to a joyful life living it to the fullest in the face no doubt of much hardship and abuse. The positive side risks being forgotten in face of negative talk about people’s behavior, alcoholism etc. In the Children’s Aid cases, the judge finally told the case worker to “leave that family alone.”   When the police were called into the elementary school attended by Benny children to investigate broken bones from school yard fighting, they observed that it was gangs of white kids who regularly started the fighting against the one or two Native kids in the class and the police got changes made at the administrative level rather than punishing the Native children involved in the fighting as anticipated. On learning that Clyde was raised by Kay and Ralph Espaniel, one non-Native Cartier neighbor said recently, “You couldn’t have been raised in a better family.”

 Though most family members have needed to find employment outside the village of Benny due to the inability of the land to sustain them anymore, and the population has decreased, some family members continue to live there seasonally or year-round. Camp Eagle Nest has a base camp in Benny including a cabin, tepee and sweat lodge.  Natives living in Benny never paid tax or rent until last year when Domtar purportedly sold the land where homes stood to one of its contractors, Philip Martel. Clyde believes that the forestry companies never owned that land nor did they have any right to sell. The treaty allowed them to negotiate with the Native people who were living there for lumbering rights only. They were supposed to share profits with the Native peoples who retained title to the "land now occupied by them" in the words of the treaty.

There are two cemeteries located in Benny: a cemetery with about 60 native burial grounds clearly marked currently, and a Catholic cemetery with an unknown number of native burials. Mr. McNichol's ancestors are buried in each of these grounds. There are additional burial grounds in the area which are not marked. 
 The people often preferred to be buried where they lived in homes spread across the surrounding area, rather than in a village, according to key informants.

Dean Fitzgerald and David Jolly of Premier Environmental Services have documented ecological values, old growth forest and protected species such as the Canada warbler in this area.   The area includes old growth forest, which supports Species at Risk including: Blanding’s Turtle, Common Nighthawk, Barn Swallow, Canada Warbler, Eastern Meadowlark, Eastern Whip-poor-will and Chimney Swift. These are species that the MNRF routinely identifies to mining companies in the area as requiring legal protection. However, when it comes to forestry, MNRF is permitting logging to destroy this old growth habitat, including red and white pine (some measuring about 8' circumference), and the species that it supports.

Dr. Patrick Julig of Laurentian University has visited four times to study the archeological values in the area.  There are many ancient and historic era archeaeological sites reported along the Spanish, indicating long-term use of this area by the Anishnawbek and their ancestors for hunting and gathering for at least 8,000 years. Pictographs are found at various locations. At Fox Lake, south of Benny near the Spanish is the Foxie Otter site, with artifacts from the late Woodland to the early Archaic (ca. 7600 B.P.) one of the oldest C-14 dated sites in this part of Canada. Some artifacts that have been reported include a large stone axe from Morgan Lake near Levack, and a wood dugout canoe recovered from below Windy Lake. The Spanish River was a very important travel/trade route from Georgian Bay/Lake Huron into the north and Arctic watershed. There was a Hudson Bay Trading post at the river mouth of the Spanish River, Fort LaCloche, and another upriver about 25 kilometers north of Spanish Lake, at Pogamasing Lake  which was open from the 1880s to the early twentieth century, and others at Onaping, Biscostaising, and Whitewater Lakes.

Medicine man Tom Isaac came out to document the wealth of traditional medicines in the Benny area several times this summer before tragically succumbing to a heart attack recently.  The area includes medicinal plants like swampy iron wood, Labrador tea, sweetgrass, sage and cedar. Over 100 species of plants were used by the Anishinawbek for medicines, foods, traditional crafts, as well as for dyes, decorations and many other uses. The plants provide suitable habitat for moose, rabbits, beaver, bear, fox, and porcupine.

A traditional knowledge study by Barbara McNichol, Dean Fitzgerald and staff at Atikameksheng Anishnawbek based on interviews with former residents Benny and Chiefs of Atikameksheng Anishnawbek is near completion. It documents the history of the area and its use over the past few centuries.

Unfortunately, no one will be able to hunt and fish or gather in the wider treaty land, if it is so drastically altered that many animals leave. Plants and medicines won't be able to grow in the toxic and scorched earth that remains. The idea that forests are a renewable resource and aerial spraying and replanting are adequate is propaganda by moneyed interests driven by greed from afar.  When trees are taken, the land is not replenished in the way natural rot or forest fire would provide.  From the Native perspective, all the plants and animals around us are relatives with spirit, put here by the Creator, just as we are, and they must be respected and protected. The harmony of interdependent species in a natural forest is beautiful, peaceful and life-giving.  Trees of different ages live together in a healthy mutually beneficial way, just as healthy families include the very old and very young, not just all one age group. Prayers are asked, and tobacco given, before killing anything needed for survival. When more is taken beyond our own family’s immediate needs, suffering from scarcity usually follows. Eventually, because of the vast logging and aerial spraying, the land will become desert and unable to sustain any life, just as some lakes are now deplete of any life, says Elder Art Petahtegoose.


Find out more about the Benny Forest in this video.

Find out about traditional medicines in the Benny Forest in the video.

A petition to stop logging the Benny Forest can be found here.

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