Indigenous Arts & Stories - Debwewin


2011 - Writing Winner

Generations of our people have suffered. This is truth. They have waited for the good life and never received. This is their truth. My family has suffered and the future generations are responsible for the good life now. This is our truth. Debwewin.

Read Carissa Copenace's Debwewin

Carissa Copenace

Winnipeg, MB
Rainy River First Nations, ON
Age 20

Author's Statement

The story of my community is not an easy one to swallow. But what Anishinaabe community’s is? The youth of Rainy River First Nations face drugs, alcohol, and the cycle of violence every day. Many do not know the history that has brought us to Manitou Rapids. I didn’t really know until I researched the records in the basement of the band office and in a back room at the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre. I asked my mom and she related the story of our family, stories about our struggles. I was stunned by her stories and hope that telling them here will provide a sense of the life our community has lived.

I wrote this for my generation – so they can know what our families went through to provide a better life for us. And I wrote it for the future generations – so they will know the same and continue to make their way home. In order for us to make that a possibility it is time to face the harsh truth of our lives and continue to live honestly as we have been instructed by the Creator. We need to practice our teachings, especially those that revolve around the seven grandfather’s wisdom. With our love, courage, respect, humility, honesty wisdom and truth we will be able to walk in beauty and show our people a way back to our traditional roles as Anishinaabe people.



Generations of our people have suffered. This is truth. They have waited for the good life and never received. This is their truth. My family has suffered and the future generations are responsible for the good life now. This is our truth. Debwewin.




The men at the Indian Office call me Albert Wilson. It’s not my real name, only the name on their papers. I have lived many lives but I am young. Before the treaty papers I lived here on this land called mother earth with no fixed address – my relations knew where to find me in any given season. But once the treaty papers were signed, I began my life as Albert Wilson; out on the land allocated to me at Hungry Hall #1. This was not my way of life and I became ill – too ill to farm the land. The Indian Agent said I wasn’t working the land properly and they took it from us, told us we had to relocate to Long Sault. So I packed up my family and we started a new life existing on our ability to fish and trap the land.

Once again we lost our home when the Ontario/Manitoba was redefined. We were not the only ones. Five communities and traditional hunting grounds lost because Ontario wanted only our land, not us. The Indian Office promised us all better lives in Manitou Rapids so we left everything behind that couldn’t be carried on our backs or by canoe. We walked on sacred ground towards our new good life. We wished for that mino-bimaadiziwin.

Manido Bawitigong was not the home we needed. Too many people and the new houses that were promised were nowhere to be found. We were no longer allowed to live out of tipis or wigwams on the land. Those without a place to live were forced to leave our communities behind and live in other Anishinaabe communities or the towns.

I met my wife Lucy and we lived for a while with her relatives in Couchiching. With my family growing, I made a home on Rainy Lake and was allocated a trapline in Bear’s Pass. Life was good for a while but my wife became ill and no longer wanted to live in the bush. She moved on and remarried and later became ill with the sugar disease and died. I was only 38 years old with four teenage children. I moved my family to Atikokan where I met and married my second wife. Life was difficult for my family in this small town and we weren’t able to live like other people – the Indian Agent was always telling us how we should live. I made a small living by continuing to trap and with a small bait shop. My children were taken away to the Residential Schools.

Our people would often come to me for help and I would assist them with the gifts Creator has given me – but the secrecy required hurts my heart. My children have returned as adults – unable to speak our language and confused about their identity – I do not know how to communicate with them.
I am a young man, but I have lived many lives and I am tired of this life.




My father never returned to Manitou Rapids and died in Atikokan – he made his own way back to the creator by choice. I did not come home until I counted 30 summers. My name is Gordon Wilson and I live near the spirit rapids with my wife and three children. We live a mixed lifestyle. We live off the land but I am too uncomfortable to complete my responsibility – neglecting the ceremonies to go with these activities. We have more rights than did the generation before me. We hunt and fish, harvest the wild rice, and gather the medicines and foods.

We came back to Manitou Rapids in the late 1960s. The houses that were promised during the amalgamation were finally being given and there was one for us. Life on the reserve is not pretty and there is sometimes not enough to go around. We have no plumbing, running water, or electricity and the house we are promised is a two bedroom home shared with my brother, his wife, and six children. We try to help each other through this life, but it is not what our ancestors would call the good life.

The family dynamics here are not what they should be. It is historical – communities forced together, families forced together. We have many disagreements in close quarters and we all become either victims or perpetuators of family violence. The alcohol and drugs spin people further out of control. Children are taken away by Child and Family Services. Families continually lose their future.

We were given a new home with indoor plumbing in 1975 and I was hired as an operator with the local sawmill. My wife comes from a different family, and helps me overcome my struggles with alcohol. In 1977 I become the one of two First Nation constables hired by the Ontario Provincial Police and I am hopeful that I can change the future for my family and my community.

I see the same things over and over in this community and I wish for it to end. The band filed a land claim for those lands taken from our fathers and mothers. It took Ontario a long while to accept, and the Government of Canada even longer. I wonder how long it will be before it is settled, how long until my kids get what their grandfather wanted for us – the good life. I am still young and I am waiting.




We moved to Manitou Rapids when I was four years old. I am the middle child of Gordon and Maxine Wilson – Cheryl Copenace nee Wilson. Growing up here was hard for me and my brothers. We try to do traditional activities just as well as the other children, but we try to blend into the mainstream society too and for that, we are not well liked. My dad was a police officer and the community thrived on fear of authority. My brothers and I were often ridiculed for our father’s position in the community and for certain privileges our family had because of it.

The drugs and alcohol make people sick – make them go crazy. Families go after each other here and fight within themselves. We left once because someone attempted to hurt us while under the influence of drugs. We only returned because the reserve said we could build a new home away from the town site. The history of fighting gets in the way of every decision made or defeated in our politics. Most of the time what is good and right for the community and the next generation is ignored.

I moved away from the community several times during my youth. I lived in the white world adapted well, attended school, and worked in the “real world” but I was unhappy inside – always searching for that something that was missing. I have always returned here. It is who I am and I long to rediscover the ways of the land I lived as a child with my father. And more importantly, it is where I want to raise my children and my grandchildren, in the hopes that they will finish what I have started. A way home to our teachings.
I never thought I would see the land claims settled in my lifetime. But it happened. I sat with my daughter and my grandmother as the final settlement was signed by all parties and we were given hope.

My daughter has been raised here in Manitou Rapids and today we continue to hope and fight for a better future in our community. We live the good lives wanted by my grandfather and have taken on our inherent rights to our place in our Anishinaabe world.




Boozhoo. Nigaan-nigabawik indigo. Namay ndoodem. Manido Bawitigong ndoonjii. My English name is Carissa Copenace. I have shared the truth of my family. This is the truth of my community. Debwewin.
In 1873, Treaty #3 was signed by 27 Anishinaabe communities at Northwest Angle #37. The seven separate Rainy River First Nations were known as Hungry Hall #1, Hungry Hall #2, Manitou Rapids #1, Manitou Rapids #2, Little Forks, Long Sault #1, and Long Sault #2 at the time of the treaty signing. In 1875 these seven communities surveyed and accepted the following seven reserves known as Little Forks Indian Reserve #10, Manitou Rapids Indian Reserve # 11, Long Sault Rapids Indian Reserve #12, Long Sault Rapids Indian Reserve #13, The Bishop Indian Reserve #14 (also known as Hungry Hall #1), Paskonkin Indian Reserve #15 (also known as Hungry Hall #2) and Wildlands Indian Reserve #15M.

After these lands had been accepted for settlement by the communities, collectively known as Rainy River First Nations, the Anishinaabe began to build upon and improve the lands to suit their needs. Six of the seven reserves were used for permanent settlement, excluding the Wildlands, which was used as communal hunting and gathering grounds by Rainy River First Nations. They were able to travel to and from each community with the seasons as they always had, if not somewhat restricted to certain areas for their activities.
In 1889 the Canadian/Ontario Boundary Act established the boundaries of Ontario to include the location and extent of Treaty #3. Ontario agreed to include the location and extent of the Treaty #3 reserves if six of the seven reserves of the Rainy River First Nations were surrendered to the province.

Canada secured the surrender for sale of the reserves from Rainy River First Nations. The Wildlands Indian Reserve #15M was surrendered on April 28, 1914, followed by the five others, excepting Manitou Rapids Indian Reserve #11, on April 7, 1915. These days are referred to as the Dates of Taking. The seven reserves were not administratively amalgamated into one First Nation by the Department of Indian Affairs until the 1960s.

Ontario proceeded to sell the land to settlers in the area or use it for their own devices, such as pulp cutting and building. Some of these sales were recorded in “Sales of Land on the Little Forks, Long Sault, and Wild Lands Indian Reserves” which was received in the 1950s or 1960s by the Rainy River First Nations and is not signed by the author or compiler.

Once the Dates of Taking had passed, all seven communities were merged onto Manitou Rapids Indian Reserve #11. Many left behind their homes and valuable possessions that could not be transferred by canoe, which was their only mode of transportation at the time. The members of Rainy River First Nations did not regret their decision for they had been promised a great many things when they surrendered their reserves and moved to Manitou Rapids. The homes, livestock, tools, money and other goods which they had been promised would never be received.

It was a difficult time for the Anishinaabe of Rainy River First Nations. They had lost many things besides their homes and possessions. They were no longer allowed to travel with the seasons through the land, providing for themselves from the land. Hunting, fishing, and trapping required licenses which were expensive and difficult to obtain. Gathering of traditional food, medicine and herbs was restricted to certain areas for each community. Wild rice harvest was also restricted and many areas which had once been plentiful were flooded or polluted.

With so many people living in an area too small and using the land that was not plentiful enough for them, it became difficult to live in Manitou Rapids. Some community members attempted to return to their former homes, but found them empty and barren. Many left the community all together to find a better life in the towns or other reserves.




It did not take long for the Anishinaabe of Rainy River First Nations to realize they had been wronged, but it took a little longer to discover how to correct the wrong. In September of 1982 Rainy River First Nations filed a land claim with Canada and Ontario which stated that the six reserves had been wrongfully taken. They detailed that the reserves had been surrendered under duress and influence from Canada and Ontario which made their consent to the surrender process obsolete. Rainy River First Nations also claimed that Canada had misadministered the sale of the surrendered reserves.

Ontario did not accept the claim for negotiation until January of 1987 and Canada accepted in April of 1994 after extensive research by both parties on the claims. Rainy River First Nations had filed a lawsuit against Ontario and Canada in 1988 but the lawsuit was deferred after the claim was accepted for negotiation by both parties.

A Negotiation Framework was signed at Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung, The Place of the Long Rapids or the Manitou Mounds, which was also the original community site of Long Sault, by all three parties on May 6, 1997, which detailed the goals of the upcoming negotiations. It took eight more years for those goals to be recognized.

On May 20, 2005 the final Settlement Agreement was signed by Canada, Ontario and the Rainy River First Nations representatives.

Over 90 years after the Dates of Taking Rainy River First Nations was compensated for the losses suffered by their ancestors and the losses that continue to be suffered today. After the Rainy River First Nations land claim was officially settled with over 70 million dollars in compensation received, the Anishinaabe people of the community began to use the money and land to deal with the many issues surrounding the community and to improve the lives of many community members.

Generations of people at Rainy River First Nations have suffered. I live the good life today because they have suffered for my right to live as an Anishinaabekwe. My community has been given back their land and compensated for the money lost on the sale of the land its products. But what is more important is that my community has a new way to return to our culture and find sure footing in the modern world.

I fight for our culture and for our future. I have the same hope as my great-grandfather Albert Wilson that my own children and grandchildren will live the good life – mino-bimaadiziwin. It is time for my generation to face the truth of our past so that we can live in truth for the next seven generations. It is time to find Debwewin.