The Haweaters

When the first European settlers reached Manitoulin Island in the mid-1600s they found a rugged inhospitable environment covered by dense forests and lashed by severe winters. According to the local oral tradition, the Indigenous elders advised the visitors to consume the hawberries, an inborn low bush fruit, to prevent scurvy. To this day, the non-Indigenous people born on the island carry the “Haweater” nickname.

Manitoulin Island is the largest freshwater island in the world, sitting just off Lake Huron’s northern shore. In the Ojibway language Manitoulin means “Spirit Island.” Its land is sacred to the “People of the Three Fires.” After the war of 1812, in which several Indigenous nations fought the American invaders alongside the British army, the colonial government declared Manitoulin an insular Aboriginal refuge. The demand for land for settlers eventually cut the romantic plan short, paving the way for colonization.

The development of Manitoulin Island depicts, on a smaller scale, the colonial history of Canada – with Indigenous people outnumbered by settlers and caught between the Protestant’s and Roman Catholic’s push for dominance in the new world, then lured into signing questionable treaties upon which the Canadian Federation still relies.

Today, Manitoulin Island is one of the few places in Canada where Indigenous and non-Indigenous people coexist on the same land. Of the 15,000-people living there, roughly 39 per cent are Aboriginal by status. Historically fraught, the relationship between the two groups is still affected by such fresh wounds as the Indian Act and Indian Residential schools. However, alienation, lack of employment and small-town boredom bear the same impact on all the islanders. Everybody loves Manitoulin, but everybody leaves at some point and returns at another, while life keeps flowing in the inevitability of compromise.

Since 2014, I have explored Manitoulin’s social dichotomy through its mundane aspects, historical metaphors and contradictions, in the light of a silent assimilation advancing inexorably. I deliberately refrained from pursuing the “crisis” narrative and stereotypes often associated with Indigenous communities. Instead, I looked for images allegorizing the untold tale of coexistence on the island, and the common challenges along the blurred lines of neocolonialism, multiculturalism and Aboriginal blood thinning - as the post-Truth and Reconciliation era keeps boosting the Canadian liberal reputation worldwide.

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