Wauzhushk Onigum Nation (pronounced Waa-JUSHK oh-KNEE-gum), commonly referred to as Rat Portage, is an Anishinaabe community based on the north shore of Lake of the Woods in northwestern Ontario. Wauzhushk Onigum’s primary reserve, Kenora 38B, is 22.3 km2. As of 2021, the First Nation has 802 registered members, 383 of whom live on this reserve. Wauzhushk Onigum is a member of Treaty 3, signed in 1873. The City of Kenora is 3 km northwest and is the closest service hub for the First Nation.
Wauzhushk Onigum’s traditional territory, along with the nearby community of Obashkaandagaang First Nation, encompasses the land along Lake of the Wood’s northern shoreline, including the land that the City of Kenora rests upon. Rat Portage, as the area was called before changing to Kenora, was known for its fur trade (muskrat in particular), mining, and logging. Both Kenora and Wauzhushk Onigum’s reserve were originally called Rat Portage because roughly translated Wauzhushk Onigum means “portage to the country of the muskrats.”
Sultana Gold Mine
In 1886, the Government of Canada seized Wauzhushk Onigum’s Sultana Island under the guise of benefiting the First Nation. Sultana Island is located in the Lake of the Woods, and at the time was part of Wauzhushk Onigum’s reserve lands. Five years earlier, in 1881, prospectors had discovered gold on the island. According to oral history of Treaty 3 negotiations, Lieutenant-Governor Alexander Morris promised First Nations monetary benefits from mineral deposits on reserve. This promise was broken. During its operation between 1891 and 1906, the Sultana gold mine was the leading gold producer in Ontario. Wauzhushk Onigum, however, did not benefit from it. The First Nation eventually settled this grievance through a specific claim.
St. Mary’s Indian Residential School
St. Mary’s Indian Residential School, located on Wauzhushk Onigum’s reserve, opened on 1 September 1897 and closed on 30 June 1972. Originally called the Rat Portage Boarding School, the institution went by two other names, Kenora Boarding School and St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic School, before adopting the name St. Mary’s in 1938. Children from Wauzhushk Onigum as well as other First Nations attended the school. At one point Wauzhushk Onigum negotiated an agreement to not allow students to be converted to Catholicism against their parents’ will. However, school administrators didn’t respect this agreement. They also physically and sexually abused the children. Many children died, likely from abuse and neglect.
Oral history points to mass unmarked grave sites and an incinerator that disposed of the bodies of children who died at the school. At St. Mary’s, the conditions surrounding the burial of children were similar to those at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, where the discovery of about 200 graves made national headlines in May 2021. At these schools and others across the country, there was little policy regarding the burial of children or the maintenance of cemeteries. While a photo from the early 1900s shows the cemetery at St. Mary’s Indian Residential School, its precise location remains unknown.
Between 1948 and 1953 the federal government also conducted nutritional experiments at St. Mary’s and five other residential schools, as evidenced by Survivors and further detailed by historian Ian Mosby. Lionel Pett, director of the government’s nutrition services division, led the studies. Pett believed the children at these schools, known to be chronically malnourished, provided an opportunity to experiment. At St. Mary’s, many of the children were deficient in riboflavin, a condition that can cause anemia. One of the experiments aimed to combat this, but failed. At the end of the trial the children were more anemic than they were at the beginning.
A small building that once served as part of St. Mary’s still stands. It is connected to the bingo hall and was Wauzhushk Onigum’s former band office. A memorial for the children of the school sits on the old site. During the construction of facilities on Pow Wow Island, on the First Nation’s reserve, the Grey Nuns donated a sum of money for the harms done during their operation of St. Mary’s.
Anicinabe Park Occupation
In the summer of 1974, the Ojibway Warrior Society occupied Anicinabe Park, located just south of Kenora and on traditional territory. The occupation was in direct response to the way First Nations people were being treated in Canada. One focal point was the mercury contamination at Grassy Narrows, but people gathered for other reasons, too. Their demands included improved living conditions for First Nations people, such as access to housing and education. The occupation lasted six weeks, from mid-July to late August. While the protest ended peacefully, it exposed the deep-seated racism that prevailed in Northwestern Ontario. Publications such as Bended Elbow, Kenora Talks Back, a racist manifesto published by resident Eleanor M. Jacobson, and Kenora’s local newspaper, Kenora Miner & News, portrayed the warriors and First Nation people in general as violent drunks looking for a hand-out. Despite rocking the area and people across the country watching the occupation, nothing changed, and the demands were not met.
Businesses and Infrastructure
Wauzhushk Onigum owns and operates businesses that service both the First Nation and many tourists during the summer. The businesses are the Golden Eagle Bingo Hall, Devils Gap Marina, Bare Point Marina, and The Reef Store, a cannabis retailer. All serve to support the band and youth in particular, such as paying for sports registration fees. In 2020, work to connect the reserve’s water line to the City of Kenora was completed, ending a boil water advisory that had been in place for over three years.
Wauzhushk Onigum is a part of the Grand Council Treaty #3, which represents all Anishinaabe First Nations in the treaty area. The band itself elects one Chief and three Councillors for four-year terms under a Customary Code. A Customary Code means that a First Nation uses its own election system, including nomination and polling procedures, to determine its representation, as opposed to using Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada’s format.
Arts and Culture
In the early 1970’s, members of Wauzhushk Onigum founded the Lake of the Woods Powwow Club. The club gathered around the sacred drums of the Anishinaabeg to promote sobriety at a time of high alcoholism among First Nation people in Treaty 3. The club was integral to initiating a cultural and spiritual renaissance in the area, and was a focal point for many Elders’ healing after residential schools. Today, Anishinaabe powwows, spirituality, and language continue to grow in Treaty 3 as more young people return to their roots. Wauzhushk Onigum is home to many sacred lodges, sites, and medicines, as well as two annual powwows.