Life is different now that Michi Saagig Anishinaabeg Elder and teacher Doug Williams has moved on to a higher plane. In conveying condolences to his family, community, and many friends throughout Turtle Island, my colleagues and I celebrate Gitigaa Migizi as a great friend and ally of The Canadian Canoe Museum. Until his passing on July 13th, I had no idea how often I was reassured by the knowledge that Doug was just there, up the road, knowing he had answers to questions he hoped we would eventually come to ask.
One of those questions that we were starting to formulate in the early 2000s was: “What would/could/should a museum look like, sound like, be like if we were to honour and collaborate fully with Indigenous communities, from which a goodly portion of our collection originates?” Through the kindness of many people from Curve Lake First Nation, we had built good neighbourly relations. I recall, for example, Chief Keith Knott and his wife, Elsie, helping us with the text of a declaration, written in English and Anishinaabemowin, for the first National Canoe Day in June 2007—which they read from a canoe in the Peterborough Lift Lock before the Chief, in his lilting tenor voice, led the assembled group in a stirring rendition of O Canada. But it was Doug Williams who led us from neighbourliness toward the margins of true collaboration.
Soon after that first National Canoe Day, a planned exhibit about treaties and canoes brought Doug and other Indigenous and non-Indigenous collaborators to the Museum. The meeting, which had had its moments, to be sure, was winding down. Somehow, we got talking about what it was like to sleep overnight in the Museum and how it was impossible to do this without being aware of sounds and energies that were difficult to comprehend without invoking supernatural explanations. That clearly did not surprise Doug. “Did you know that the spirits of the makers and the people who paddled those craft often remain with the canoes?” he asked. But then he paused and asked a second question that, in retrospect, became a turning point in the evolution of The Canadian Canoe Museum.
“When was the last time you feasted the spirits of the canoes in your collection?”
The answer to that question was … “never.”
“I can help you change that, if you like,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.
In the ensuing weeks, Doug reached out to spiritual leaders in other local First Nation communities who, in due course, assembled with the Museum’s board and staff one sunny afternoon for this first feasting of the spirits of the canoes. Before the feast, ceremony leaders reached out to the spirits and invited them into our midst. One by one, first inside the Museum and then row by row through the collection centre at the back of the property, each canoe was smudged and honouring prayers were said. And, when that was done, we shared food and the fellowship of a cross-cultural community that had in common the canoe and the belief that it was, and is, a worthy thing to celebrate as Canada finds its way forward. The event was poignant and moving, like nothing that had ever occurred in the life of the collection and the Museum to that date.
That important and beautiful gesture initiated by Gitigaa Migizi more than a decade ago continues to effervesce through everything the Museum does. For my part, as Executive Director from 2008-2015, the feasting of the canoes opened the door to a friendship with Doug. I sought him out and saw him regularly, sometimes at public events at Curve Lake, by invitation or happenstance at the Museum, or elsewhere in Peterborough, but more often just by dropping by his office at the university.
These occasional visits were a great chance to follow up with Doug and to try out some of the ideas that were emerging in our practices or our strategic planning sessions. We would discuss ways to increase Indigenous participation in all aspects of museum affairs and how to shift the locus of the Museum’s storytelling toward the communities from which the canoes originated. Always generous with his time, he’d sit back in his chair and say that’s a good idea, or that’s a bad idea, but, more often than not, in response to learning what the Museum was up to, he’d make his way into a story or an anecdote that always had something to do with the matter at hand, even if the connection was not immediately obvious.
Doug Williams, fourth from the left, participates in a repatriation ceremony for the Enys canoe.
Gitigaa Migizi’s gifts of time and wisdom also extended to key events at the Museum. In one instance, he helped repatriate an 18th Century bark canoe turned up in a byre near Falmouth, England, back in 2012. Doug blessed and welcomed the craft in a private ceremony when the canoe arrived. On this same occasion, he spoke with the board and staff about the importance of how a cultural artifact like this should be cared for and treated. But he also took the opportunity to talk about how canoes are attached to land and to places and families, to builders and to the people for whom they were a means of communication and transportation. He spoke of the spiritual and cosmological aspects of watercraft. He pulled no punches in his teacherly way in letting the board know that this whole conversation in the back building at 910 Monaghan Road was happening on stolen land and how “in The Language” (that was how he always referred to Anishinabemowin), there really is no word for museum.
When the story of The Canadian Canoe Museum is told, when the history of the Museum is written, many names will be mentioned as being significant, even pivotal, in guiding this cultural improvisation along its path. The last thing Gitigaa Migizi would have wanted would have been to have his name up in lights or on a plaque somewhere because he would always tell you that all he was doing was passing things along that others had taught him and that life had helped him learn. And he would be quick to say that one honoured one’s Elders and teachers with the understanding that the truth and integrity of the story are always more important than the recognition or acknowledgement of the storyteller.
Many hands, many voices, many hearts and minds, and many stories have shaped and are shaping The Canadian Canoe Museum’s ongoing evolution, particularly as we take advantage of a move to a new location to reimagine what it means to be a museum. We have much to do and learn as we build and rebuild collaborative relations with the First Nation, Métis, and Inuit communities in which Canada’s canoe and kayak cultures began. Since that first feast, Doug William’s counsel and his legacy are written into key decisions, strategic initiatives, and other consequential organizational moves that have been undertaken since he and the Museum first connected.
All of us at the Museum, at one time or another, have expressed in person our appreciation to Doug for his kindness, his patience, his forthrightness, his wisdom and his most excellent sense of fun. But on the occasion of his crossing from this world to the next, I offer condolences to his family and many friends; I call out his many gifts, not least his gentle good humour, and offer a personal vote of thanks for his friendship and guidance. No word for museum. No word for goodbye. We have much to learn. You have helped us along the way. Chi miigwetch, Gitigaa Migizi. Giga-waabamin.
This reflection on Doug Williams (Gitigaa Migizi)’s friendship, contributions, and the legacy he leaves behind at The Canadian Canoe Museum was written by James Raffan, Director of External Relations.