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 2015, 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.


Ojibway elder Leo Bebonung takes a break in the bush near the log house he is building in M’Chigeeng First Nation, Ontario. The Aboriginal oral tradition recounts that when the first European settlers reached Manitoulin Island in 1648, the local Native elders advised them to eat the hawberries, an inborn low bush fruit, to prevent scurvy. To this day, the non-Native people born on the island carry the “Haweater” nickname.

An empty boat sits on Lake Manitou's shore, Manitoulin Island, Ontario. Manitoulin is the largest freshwater island in the world, while Lake Manitou is the largest lake on a freshwater island in the world. According to the Aboriginal tradition, Manitou, the Great Spirit, wished for an island retreat, so he created Manitoulin, which in Ojibway language means Spirit Island. The entire insular site is sacred to the Ojibway, Odawa and Potawotomi nations, "The People of the Three Fires."

Seagulls land on Lake Huron, off Manitoulin Island’s southern shore, to eat the fish guts that a gill net boat dropped on its way back to Providence Bay. The 1836 Bond-Head Treaty declared Manitoulin Island an insular Indigenous refuge. However, this did not prevent the European settlers from continuing to reach the island's shores to fish and trade with the Natives, introducing alcohol in their communities. 

A group of Ojibway and Odawa men play the drum in a traditional circle during M’Chigeeng’s Pow Wow. Natives had lived nomadically on the island long before the arrival of Europeans and their wars and epidemics. Oral tradition narrates how the island became uninhabited for 150 years after being burned by the islanders to purify it. In 1862 the controversial McDougall Treaty allowed the government to divide Manitoulin in order for non-Natives to settle there.


"The demand for land for settlers cut the romantic plan short"


A statue of an angel blowing a horn lays abandoned in the bush, in Moisie, Quebec, on the Saint Lawrence river's northern shore. The push for dominance in the new world was always an affair between the Protestants and Roman Catholics. The French Jesuits in their quest for evangelization headed along the northern and southern shores of the Saint Lawrence river, leaving behind several settlements, while making their way towards the Great Lakes and eventually Manitoulin Island, in 1648 with Father Joseph Poncet. 

The Hore brothers place the Purvis fisheries' nets into Lake Huron, off Manitoulin Island’s southern shore. The Purvis Fisheries story begins in 1851, when William Purvis and his two brothers ventured from Arbroath, a fishing port in Scotland, to the new world. By 1902 William and his five sons had formed a partnership called Purvis Brothers. The second generation started to fish for themselves by 1905. Four of the five brothers fished from ports on Manitoulin Island. Commercial fishing is still one of Manitoulin's main resources. 

The remains of St. Joseph's residential school, in Spanish, Ontario. The Jesuit institute, operated from 1913 until 1965 with Indigenous children coming from Manitoulin Island and other communities. One of the darkest pages in modern Canadian history, the residential school system perpetrated abuse and cultural genocide among Natives up until 1996. This resulted in almost the complete destruction of Indigenous identity, the consequences of which have highly impacted Aboriginal communities to this day.

Elder Lyle Joseph Pahtayken, from Saskatchewan is about to enter a tepee hosting a Sacred Fire, in Wikwemikong First Nation. He was invited to Manitoulin Island as an advisor for a “Memorial Round Dance,” and to hand down teachings to the men from the community. In the midst of colonialism's rubbles, elders represent the last resource for Aboriginal communities to keep the traditional teachings and languages alive, and pass them onto the next generations.  



TOP LEFT: A woman plays guitar during a house party in M'Chigeeng First Nation, Ontario. Reserves are often depicted as places where alcohol and drug abuse happen. However, social segregation, lack of employment, and post colonialism's effects are all to blame for the current situation. The impact of isolation and lack of opportunities on Manitoulin Island bears the same effect on all islanders, but stereotypes and misinformation are typically applied only to the Native communities.

TOP RIGHT: A bird flies inside a house in an area nicknamed the "Bronx" in M'Chigeeng First Nation, Ontario. The Manitoulin district currently incorporates seven reserves for a total of roughly 5,260 Indigenous individuals according to a 2016 census. Hopelessness paired with inter-generational trauma have had a lasting impact on the social fabric of the island's Indigenous communities. Back in 1876, when the Indian Act was ratified, Aboriginal individuals needed a special pass to leave the reserves.

BOTTOM LEFT: Joe Ense is seen in his house, in M'Chigeeng First Nation, Ontario. Very popular among all islanders, he suddenly passed away on Jul 4, 2018. Despite the island's social and historical divisions, Manitoulin's response to this tragic loss crossed the borders of Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

BOTTOM MIDDLE: Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation, Ontario. Originally located where Little Current, the main non-Aboriginal town and the island's gateway lays, the community was relocated around 1880 to "Sucker Creek." The McDougall Treaty resulted in the creation of several reserves on Manitoulin Island, which, according to local Indigenous historian Alan Corbiere, triggered the loss of language and culture for the Natives who lived there.

BOTTOM RIGHT: Children play in a house, in M'Chigeeng First Nation, Ontario. Growing up as a child on Manitoulin Island has several positive perks. The rural life, nature, lake and snowy winter can keep many children engaged and occupied. However the teenage years are the critical ones, when "small town" boredom arises often fueled by the lack of employment and social alienation. 


Dave Patterson walks his dog Norman after a snowstorm, in Little Current, Ontario. Patterson, whose mother's side of the family has owned land on Manitoulin Island since the 1920s, is the Production Manager of The Manitoulin Expositor, the oldest northern Ontario newspaper, founded in 1879. The independently owned publication strives daily to cover both "sides" of the island's life and offer a fair and equal representation of all islanders.

Jean McLennan, left, celebrates her 99th birthday at her great grandson's house, in Assiginack, Ontario. A true “Haweater,” she was born and raised on Manitoulin and is the third oldest person of the island. Jean McLennan has currently lived almost two thirds of the Canadian Federation's history. Her family came to Canada from Scotland around 1836. 


"Everybody loves Manitoulin but everybody leaves at some point"





Bradley Stapleton celebrates his win at the Manitowaning Summer Fest smash-up derby. Born and raised on the island, Stapleton works as a miner in Sudbury, Ontario, roughly 130 Km east of Manitoulin. It is quite common for local youngsters to leave the island and seek employment somewhere else. During the summer, when Manitoulin's population almost doubles, a few more seasonal jobs in the service and hospitality industry become available.

Felicia Wabegijik, right, laughs out loud during the party to celebrate her departure from Manitoulin Island to attend a college in southern Ontario. A friend wrote on Felicia's Facebook profile: "Missing my girl but also proud of her accomplishment on getting da fuck out of here and gone out to do more in her life you are the bomb dot com babe, u and Dom."

Jason Forrest starts his truck, as his wife Jessica waits to get in for a night out on the island. Originally from Timmins and Sudbury, Ontario, the couple has been calling Manitoulin home for the past seven years. After working several local jobs, Forrest decided to go back to college to get into nursing. This will allow him in the future to pursue more remunerative positions somewhere else.

BreaAnn Corbiere, left, and her dad Scott, right, deal with a temper tantrum thrown by BreAnn's son Braxton, Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation, Ontario. BreAnn, 22, had Braxton at 19. In the three years between 2014 and 2016 roughly 1.5 per cent yearly, of Manitoulin Island's female population aged 15 to 19, had a pregnancy. BreAnn currently works as a Personal Support Worker in Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation.

Gary Pheasant tries one of his brother's hunting rifles, in Wikwemikong First Nation, Ontario. Pheasant left the island in his early 20s to work as an hairdresser in Toronto. He identifies both as a man and woman. In the Aboriginal tradition he is considered a "Two Spirited" individual. Pheasant regularly returns to his Manitoulin community. Employment and life circumstances have driven him away from his native land, yet it remains deeply rooted in his heart.





A stretch of Highway 540 running along Manitoulin Island rugged terrain. The glacial origin of the island and its alkaline soil do not welcome agriculture, which was forced into Manitoulin by the settlers through deforestation and reclamation of swampy areas. Hunting and fishing have always been the island's main resources. Manitoulin Transport and Lafarge are currently the two main companies on the island, plus a few fishing and aquaculture operations.


TOP LEFT: Maddy Madahbee drives to a bush party in a secret location on Manitoulin Island. Most of the times local teenagers organize bush parties to be able to drink alcohol, as in Ontario the drinking age is set at 19. 

TOP RIGHT: Winston Manitowabi, left, and Raven Recollet share a tender moment during the Wikwemikong First Nation Pow Wow. They are an Indigenous teenage couple from Manitoulin Island. Several Aboriginal parents, concerned about their blood line, encourage their kids to marry Native partners. Indigenous blood is getting thinner and thinner and some elders believe that in roughly 10 years, there will no longer be any pure Aboriginal individuals.​

BOTTOM LEFT: A teenager gets out of his house basement in Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation, Ontario. According to a 2016 census 770 teenagers live on Manitoulin Island in the age group comprised between 15 and 19.

BOTTOM RIGHT: A mixed group of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal teenagers gathers in a house in Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation. Recently a Manitoulin Island high school was home to a brawl among students that quickly turned racial. Several media outlets covered the incident, all emphasizing the island's division. The local newspaper highlighted how despite the historical division, Manitoulin has always acted as a strong united community, while according to the M'Chigeeng's First Nation chief, dormant systemic racism is always ready to erupt.


A teenage girl suffering from anxiety and depression is photographed in a field on Manitoulin Island. The pattern of boredom mixed with alcohol and drug use leaves several of the island's teenagers with more or less severe mental issues, many of which remain untreated due to the stigma around the problem and the difficulty to ask for help.  

A horse near Providence Bay, Manitoulin Island. The horse in the Native tradition represents energy and power, but even uncontrolled emotions, while its mane symbolizes the quest for stability.




A mom and daughter stroll along the edge of the bush, in Birch Island, Manitoulin District, Ontario. They both had to face single parenthood resulting from various circumstances. It is not uncommon for Natives from different generations to struggle with their identity. The trauma caused by colonization often spreads across four generations, leading to instances of self or lateral violence.


"History cannot be changed neither can the inevitability of compromise"



TOP LEFT: Freda Anne Marie Endanawas shows her Manitoulin Island tattoo in the bush around Sheshegwaning First Nation, Ontario. Born and raised on the island, Endanawas left the reserve to pursue undergraduate education and is passionate about Indigenous history. “It is mind blowing how Canadian universities claim to know the real history of my people…” She said. According to her one of the first steps of decolonization should be revisiting history and the way it is being taught in Canadian schools.

TOP MIDDLE: Kids get their faces painted for Canada Day, in Little Current, Ontario. Events celebrating Canadian pride are held all over Manitoulin each year on July 1st, and attract many visitors and boaters to the island.

TOP RIGHT: Annette Cada adjusts a flag with a traditional Aboriginal man covering the maple leaf, in Sheshegwaning First Nation, Ontario. 2017 marked the 150th birthday of the Canadian Federation. On July 1, 2017, celebrations were held across Canada. Polemics and protests sparkled among the Aboriginal nations and sometime divided them. Of roughly 15,000 people living on Manitoulin Island, 39 % are Aboriginal by status. Manitoulin is one of the very few cases in Canada where First Nations and non-Native people coexist on the same land. 


BreAnn Corbiere, a young Aboriginal woman from Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation, watches the Canada Day fireworks show, in Mindemoya, Ontario. Despite the colonial nature of Canada Day celebration, several Aboriginal individuals from Manitoulin participate in the events organized on the island. History cannot be changed, neither can the inevitability of compromise.

Abi Dewar, left, and her boyfriend Maddy Madahbee chill at Maddy's parents house in Aundeck Omni Kaning, Ontario. Maddy is an aboriginal boy born and raised on Manitoulin Island, so was Abi, whose ancestors were Dutch and Scottish. Mixed couples are not uncommon on the island, however in several instances are not well accepted yet. Young generations seem to care less about the historical division, but episodes of racism or intolerance may happen on both sides.

Aaron Assinewai, right, and his teammates congratulate Harrison Noble, second right, during a Manitoulin Island league baseball game, in Mindemoya, Ontario. Team Bidwell is a full aboriginal local team. Harrison Noble is one of the two non-Aboriginal players on the team.

Jessica Forrest is seen in the dining room of her home in Kagawong, Ontario. She and her partner moved to Manitoulin Island from Montreal back in 2011. The couple purchased a property on the island to escape the urban lifestyle and live a rural life. Several current honorary "Haweaters" were drawn to Manitoulin by the desire to live an alternative lifestyle, many others are retirees relocating to the island. Almost 25 percent of Manitoulin's residents are aged 65 and over.


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